50 ways air travel has changed over the last 100 years
When’s the last time you got on a plane? If your last flight was before the pandemic, you’re not alone. Industry statistics show worldwide air travel is down by more than 85% from 2019, according to the Associated Press in August 2020. Fears about catching COVID-19 in a crowded airport combined with regional lockdowns, border closures, and stay-at-home orders made many people think twice before hopping on a flight in 2020. Those who did travel by air during the pandemic were met with a significantly different experience. Airlines implemented mask requirements, swapped in-flight meals for prepackaged snacks, halted certain routes, and even blocked off middle seats to try to create a socially distanced experience at 35,000 feet.
The recent changes, while radical, are just the latest in a series of adjustments air travel has gone through since the first scheduled commercial flight in the U.S. took place in Florida in 1914. Early air travel was incredibly bumpy, somewhat dangerous, and had very few frills. But once Americans started jetting around the country in greater numbers, airlines upped the ante to compete for their business. Passengers would dress up for the occasion to enjoy bottomless cocktails, live entertainment, multicourse meals complete with fine china and white tablecloths, and other pleasures in the sky during the Golden Age of flying.
Since then, though, it’s been a mostly downhill experience for air passengers. To squeeze every last dollar of profit from every flight, airlines have shrunk seat pitches, charged all sorts of new fees, and stopped offering free meals on many flights. The 9/11 terrorist attacks also prompted sweeping new security measures, requiring passengers to remove shoes, limit their liquids, and walk through full-body scanners before getting on a flight. Today’s air travel feels like a world away from the glamour of yesteryear.
So how did air travel get to this point? To find out, Stacker looked at various news articles and websites to compile this timeline of some of the most significant changes in air travel over the last century, ranging from in-flight meals and entertainment to diversity in pilots, changes in fare categories, and frequent flier programs.
Keep reading to see how air travel has changed over the last 100 years.
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1920s: Planes become available for passengers
The 1920s marked the first decade in which aircraft were designed with passengers in mind, Insider reports. However, the experience was far from glamorous. Flying was still slower than train travel, and the planes were loud, cold, and bumpy.
1921: Aeromarine Airways screens first in-flight film
Aeromarine Airways played the short film “Howdy Chicago” on a flight over the Windy City in 1921. It was the first in-flight film in history.
1927: Pan American Airways takes flight
Pan American Airways (also known as Pan Am) formed in 1927. Originally providing airmail service, the airline would eventually become the largest international air carrier in the world, and well-known among travelers.
1928: First in-flight hot meal served
Lufthansa offered the first hot-meal service aboard a plane in 1928, on a flight between Berlin and Paris. Airline workers used insulated bottles to keep the food warm, per Food Network.
1930: Air travel reserved for the wealthy
Air travel was largely reserved for the rich and famous in the late 1920s, with just 6,000 Americans flying commercially in 1930, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. However, it would quickly become more popular, and four years later, 75 times the number of passengers would travel by air, USA Today reports.
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1936: United Airlines pioneers first airplane kitchen
United Airlines launched the airline industry’s first airplane kitchen in 1936. The company gave passengers a choice between scrambled eggs and fried chicken, according to Food Network.
1939: First-ever airport lounge opens in LaGuardia Airport
New York’s LaGuardia Airport became home to the first-ever airport lounge when the American Airlines Admirals Club opened in 1939. It was used exclusively for VIPs and extremely loyal passengers.
1940: Boeing flies passengers in pressurized planes
Boeing’s 307 Stratoliner, the first plane with a pressurized cabin for passengers, hit the skies in 1940, reported Air & Space magazine. It kept passengers significantly more comfortable at 20,000 feet than earlier planes.
1941: In-flight entertainment goes live
Live in-flight entertainment became a new offering on airlines in 1941. Some would hire actors and singers to perform aboard the flights, per Imagik Corp.
1942: Casual air travel stops during World War II
The U.S. founded the Air Transport Command in 1942 to coordinate airlines’ role in transporting cargo and personnel during World War II. The military took the use of 200 of the 360 total airlines in the country, along with their staff. As a result, casual air travel was nearly nonexistent in the U.S. during the war, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
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