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The Golden Age of plane travel: what flying was like in the 1950s and 1960s compared to now

The 1950 and 1960s have become known as the "Golden Age" of flying. It was a time of glamorous air hostesses and gourmet meals, and of great leg room for all. Skyscanner Australia uncovers what it was like to fly in those days compared to flights today.

While it might have become known as the Golden Age of flying, taking to the air in the 1950s and 1960s had its downsides. For a start, it was much more dangerous and far more expensive.

Then there was the smoke from all those cigars, cigarettes and pipes. And, once you’d looked out of the window, there was not a lot to do but twiddle your thumbs. But there were upsides to flying back then too, like ever-flowing drinks and a party atmosphere.

How long travel took and how much it cost

When Qantas started flying from Brisbane to Singapore in 1935 to connect with the British-operated Imperial Airlines (now British Airways) for the flying boat flight to England, the total journey took around two weeks, with up to 43 stops. By the time Qantas introduced the Kangaroo Route from Sydney to London in 1947, the journey took four days, and included stops in Darwin, Singapore, Calcutta, Karachi, Cairo and Tripoli – and two overnight stays.

Compare that to the 22 to 23 hours it takes to fly from Sydney to London today, with just one refuelling stop, or the 17-hour non-stop flight from Perth to London aboard a Qantas 787-9 Dreamliner.

As for cost, these days, you can pick up a return flight to London for as little as $1,300, with ticket prices averaging out at around $2,000. In the 1950s and 1960s, a return flight from Sydney to London would set you back around five times as much as it does today.

The planes: then and now

Qantas used Lockheed Constellation, and later, Super Constellation planes (with air conditioning, and reclining seats) in the 1950s on the Kangaroo Route. They had four noisy propeller engines. In 1959, a Boeing 707 made an appearance on Qantas’s Sydney to San Francisco route – and the modern-era jet age had just begun.

Next came the Boeing 747, also known as the jumbo jet, which ushered in an era of mass travel when it made its Qantas debut in 1971. Today, of course, we can travel on relatively quiet and much more comfortable A380s, and ultra-long-distance 787-9 Dreamliners. Next on the shopping list for Qantas would be the Airbus A380. With these planes, non-stop flights from Sydney to London could take around 20 hours, and Sydney to New York around 18 hours.

Life onboard

Forget about economy, economy plus, business class and first-class! Initially, there was only one class – and it was pretty luxurious. In the 1950s, you might have a bed made up for you at night on some flights. You might see framed pictures on the walls. Aisles were wider and seats reclined a lot more than they do in economy these days – and you had lots of legroom.

There were endless free drinks, and people could socialise in the cocktail bar with fellow jet-setters. But the whole plane stank of cigarettes, and the air was so thick with smoke you could barely breathe. It wasn’t until the end of the 1950s that airlines started introducing tourist (or economy class), and things started to go downhill.

What people wore

T-shirts, tracksuit bottoms, hoodies, shorts, thongs, donut-pillows affixed to your neck – almost anything goes on today’s flights. But back in the Golden Age of air travel, things were very different. Almost everyone wore their finest clothes to travel. In the 1950s, men wore three-piece suits and sombre ties, and women wore dresses, high heels and pearls. Things relaxed a bit in the 1960s, when a man could get away with a polar-neck shirt or a flowery tie, and a woman could wear hippy beads and a fashionable scarf.

In the 1950s, air hostesses were like movie stars. They were selected for their looks, and there were regulations on how much they could weigh. They had to be single, too. They wore body-sculpted uniforms, corsets and sometimes white gloves. And always a hat. Adding to flying’s image of glamour and excitement, hemlines rose to mini-skirt length and colours brightened as the 1960s wore on.

The food and drink onboard

In the 1950s and 1960s, flying was an expensive thing you did occasionally, and you expected the food and drink to match – forget a can of beer or a miniature plastic bottle of wine.

Back then, champagne and brandy flowed endlessly, and a flight seemed like a cocktail party in the sky. There was lobster, and beef carved as you salivated and buffet tables instead of a packet of peanuts and nicely-folded napkins. Some meals lasted for three hours. Oh, for the good old days.

In-flight entertainment

These days, we have state-of-the-art in-seat entertainment systems to keep us occupied, as well as iPads, Kindles, computer game consoles and more. Qantas has even announced that it will be providing free wifi, Netflix, Spotify and Foxtel on its domestic flights. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, you had hours of boredom to look forward to. To break up the monotony, you could read a book or a newspaper. You could smoke another cigarette and have yet another glass of booze. Or you could describe your flight to your friends back home on postcards provided by the airline, often with a picture of your plane or in-flight meal on the front.

What about safety?

Statistically, you have a much better chance of surviving a flight today than you did in the 1950s and 1960s, when crash landings, injuries from turbulence and mid-air collisions were much more common. There were sharp edges in the cabins, glass partitions, inferior seat belts, looser regulations for pilot training and inherent mechanical problems. But, depending on how you compare, at least you didn’t have today’s strict airport security to deal with.

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