Flight attendant with a reclining passenger on a vintage Boeing Stratocruiser airplane.

50 ways air travel has changed over the last 100 years

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December 30, 2020
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock // Getty Images

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.

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Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock // Getty Images

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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1946: Pan American Airways offers frozen dinners

Advancements in flash-freezing technology allowed Pan American Airways to offer the first modern-style frozen dinners on airplanes in 1946. Flight attendants would warm up the meals in convection ovens before serving them to passengers, according to Food Network.

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1948: Activists fight segregation at airports

Efforts to end racial segregation at airports began to take motion in 1948 when a Michigan politician supported a Congressional bill to integrate Washington National Airport. While the bill ultimately failed, the airport's restaurant was desegregated later that year.

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1948: Passengers get first coach fares

Capital Airlines created the first coach fares for flights in 1948. The lower-cost tickets would help a much broader group of passengers experience air travel, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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1949: Passengers get first low-cost airline

Pacific Southwest Airlines launched in May 1949 as the world's first low-cost airline. The airline began by transporting passengers around California. It would become the inspiration for Southwest Airlines.

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1950s: Airlines phase out sleeper service

Planes became faster and saw a rise in traffic throughout the 1950s. As a result, airlines spent the decade phasing out their plush sleeper service, per the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The service had typically provided berth-style beds, like the ones found on trains, for transatlantic flights, says Air & Space magazine.

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1952: More efficient, reliable planes increase tourism across the Atlantic

The Douglas DC-6B, a piston-engine airliner, offered a more efficient, reliable form of air travel. United Airlines was the first to bring them into commercial service in 1952, and Pan Am would use the aircraft to help boost tourism across the Atlantic Ocean, says the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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1953: Passengers get nonstop transcontinental service

American Airlines began using the DC-7 to fly from New York to Los Angeles in November 1953. It marked the first nonstop service between the east and west coasts of the U.S.

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1958: Chicago O'Hare Airport tests modern jet bridge

Chicago O'Hare Airport began using the first modern jet bridge, or jetway, in 1958. It offered a sheltered path for passengers to travel between the terminal and the plane and ultimately sped up boarding times, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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1958: Pan Am offers in-flight fine dining

Pan Am took in-flight dining to the next level on its daily commercial route from the Big Apple to Europe in 1958. On those flights, the airline treated guests to a fine-dining experience, complete with fine china, white tablecloths, silver carafes, and extravagant dishes, reports Food Network.

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1960: American Airlines develops booking automation system

American Airlines founded the Sabre Corporation in 1960. The business would develop a booking automation system for the airline, doing away with the tedious and time-consuming process of making manual reservations for customers.

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1961: In-flight entertainment monitors advance

In-flight films started to become more regular on flights in 1961 when new in-flight entertainment monitors advanced to meet airline standards, per Imagik Corp. The noise of the plane engines made it difficult for passengers to hear film dialogue, though.

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1965: U.S. completes network of overlapping radars

The U.S. finished developing a network of overlapping radars for planes in 1965. It would advance air traffic control and make flights safer.

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1965: Marlon D. Green breaks color barrier on major airlines

After winning a Supreme Court battle against Continental Airlines, Marlon D. Green became a pilot in 1965. The African American pilot is credited with breaking the color barrier for crew on major airlines.

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1973-74: Airlines react to oil crisis

The 1973 oil crisis caused the price of oil to skyrocket. Airlines responded in several ways to cut costs. Some switched to larger, more crowded planes and scrapped flights on unpopular routes. Some also cut the weight of their planes by reducing the number of in-flight magazines and ending paint jobs for their aircraft, The New York Times reported.

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1975: Airlines offer in-flight gaming

Braniff Airlines added technology to its planes to allow passengers to play Pong while flying in 1975. It was the first time in-flight entertainment systems included video games, says Imagik Corp.

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1976: Concorde ushers in supersonic era

The Concorde, a supersonic passenger airliner that could fly at double the speed of sound, entered commercial service in 1976. Tickets for flights on the legendary plane were extraordinarily expensive and would allow passengers to travel long distances in significantly less time.

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1976: Emily Howell Warner becomes first female captain on a major airline

Frontier promoted Emily Howell Warner to the role of captain in 1976, making her the first woman to hold that position on a major U.S. airline. She had been required to jump through multiple hoops, including extra testing, that her male counterparts didn't have to endure, according to Plane & Pilot magazine.

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1978: Federal government deregulates the airline industry

President Jimmy Carter put his signature on the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978. The act would drive up competition between airlines and help reduce fares, says the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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1979: Airlines award passenger loyalty

Texas International Airlines developed the first frequent-flyer program based on miles flown in 1979, says The Points Guy. It's credited with launching the first modern program to award air passengers for loyalty.

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1984: FAA approves pre-flight safety demonstration videos

The Federal Aviation Administration gave its approval for airlines to use video for pre-flight safety demonstrations in 1984. They would eventually replace live demonstrations on many flights.

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1986: Airlines partner with credit card companies

The airline industry introduced its first branded credit cards in 1986, with the Continental TravelBank Gold Mastercard, says The Points Guy. These early credit cards would increase the ways in which frequent fliers could earn rewards for their loyalty to airlines.

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1987: American Airlines cuts olives and saves big

American Airlines decided to remove one olive from the salad plates service to first-class passengers in 1987. The move would save the airline a whopping $40,000 per year and has now become a famous tale of cost-cutting in aviation.

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1988: Airplanes get back-of-seat screens

Airplanes began installing individual screens on the back of passenger seats in 1988. It would quickly become a standard on flights, regardless of what class the passenger was sitting in, according to Imagik Corp.

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1988: Air travel goes smoke-free

Nearly 80% of flights in the U.S. banned passengers from smoking in 1988. The ban applied to nearly all flights with durations of 2 hours or less, The New York Times reported.

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1989: United slaps expiration date on frequent flyer miles

United Airlines slapped expiration dates on miles earned through its frequent flyer program in 1989. The move aimed to create a sense of urgency for customers to use the miles. Expiration dates are now standard in many frequent flier programs, per The Points Guy.

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1994: Southwest offers first e-ticket

Southwest Airlines became the first major airline to offer electronic tickets, or e-tickets, in 1994. It would help eliminate the problem of replacing lost paper tickets.

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Photo Illustration by Daniel Berehulak // Getty Images

1996: Travelocity offers online flight reservations

Travelocity went online in 1996. The online travel agency was the first to allow passengers to make flight reservations through its website.

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1997: Five airlines form the Star Alliance

Five airlines from around the world—United Airlines, Thai Airways International, Air Canada, Scandinavian Airlines, and Lufthansa–teamed up to form the Star Alliance in 1997. The first alliance of its kind, the group would offer consistent code-sharing to give passengers flexibility for earning and redeeming miles within its member airlines.

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2000s: High-profile airline mergers change industry landscape

The 2000s would bring about a series of high-profile airline mergers and acquisitions, starting with American Airlines buying Trans World Airlines in 2001. The consolidations would eventually establish American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines as the dominant carriers in the U.S.

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2001: Government increases air travel security after 9/11

Congress approved the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2001, around two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The agency rapidly ramped up staffing and deployed tens of thousands of agents to airports to screen passengers and their luggage, says PBS.

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2003: Commercial airlines retire the Concorde

Air France and British Airways both stopped flying the Concorde in 2003. The costs of maintaining the supersonic passenger jet had become too high, and passengers felt the price of the ticket was not worth saving a few hours to cross the Atlantic Ocean, per Popular Mechanics.

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2006: Air passengers must limit the liquids they pack

A plot to place liquid explosives onto a series of North America-bound flights from the U.K. was uncovered in 2006. As a result, passengers were faced with new security mandates that severely restricted the quantity of liquids they could bring in their carry-on luggage.

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2008: TSA deploys full-body scanners at airports

The Transportation Security Administration began setting up advanced imaging technology, or full-body scanners, at airports across the U.S. in 2008. By 2014, nearly 160 airports across the country were using the technology to screen passengers.

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2008: American Airlines starts charging for all checked bags

Throughout most air travel history, passengers could expect to have at least one checked bag included in their fare. That changed in 2008, when American Airlines became the first major carrier to charge a fee for every checked bag. Other airlines would quickly follow suit.

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2011: TSA PreCheck becomes available

The Transportation Security Administration introduced a new Trusted Traveler program called TSA PreCheck in October 2011. After paying a fee and getting approved, participants could get expedited service through airport security.

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2012: Government requires airlines to list the total cost of flights

In early 2012, the U.S. Transportation Department implemented a new rule that required airlines to provide transparent pricing information for tickets, including all taxes, fees, and surcharges. Before that, airlines could advertise the base fare, only to surprise customers with a significantly higher price once they were about to pay.

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2012: Delta develops basic economy fares

Delta Air Lines introduced a new, lower-cost fare category known as basic economy in 2012. Now an industry standard, these bare-bones fares are typically nonrefundable, have no advance seat assignments, include little to no baggage, and have other restrictions.

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2018: Flights get more packed

Air travel saw a huge surge in passengers throughout the 2010s. As a result, planes became increasingly crowded. A 2018 report from The Telegraph found that most planes were flying at about 80% occupancy that year, up from about 70% in 2000.

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2020: Airlines struggle during the pandemic

Stay-at-home orders and fears of COVID-19 brought air travel to a near halt in 2020. The International Air Transport Association predicted in November 2020 that the global airline industry would suffer $160 billion in losses as a result of the pandemic. The few travelers who did continue to travel by air in 2020 were met with a series of new rules and changes on planes, including mandates to wear masks and socially distance on some airlines.

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2021: Airlines consider vaccine passports

In an effort to jumpstart travel after a major slowdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines are considering requiring that all passengers get vaccinated against the disease. Alan Joyce, CEO of the Australian airline Qantas, has already announced support for a COVID-19 vaccine passport, and other airlines are considering trying out the system in early 2021.

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