Last May, bankrupt Delta Air Lines took a break from its usual news of debt restructuring, stock delisting, and abandoned pension obligations to announce something cheery: a new line of uniforms created by Richard Tyler. The designer, whose work is known for its tailored elegance, suggested that his navy-and-red Delta outfits would “evoke the time when air travel was glamorous and sophisticated.”
Ah, the lost world of airline glamour. We seem to hear about it every time an airline introduces new uniforms, updates its airport lounges, or adds first-class amenities. Each new luxury or touch of style supposedly recalls the golden age of flying, before price competition, security checks, and slobs in sweatpants ruined everything. Yet despite the wardrobe tweaks and gourmet meals, the magic never returns. Airline glamour is an oxymoron,” says a bicoastal friend.
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In fact, bringing the glamour back to air travel is much harder than adding amenities. While luxury may provide an aura of glamour, the two are not the same thing. The glamour of air travel—its aspirational meaning in the public imagination—disappeared before its luxury did, dissipating as flying gradually became commonplace. Today it is mass transit, as much defined by crowds as a rush-hour New York subway ride. In 1956, when Life magazine devoted a special issue to the “Air Age,” U.S. airlines carried 46 million passengers. In 2005, they carried nearly 739 million. (Each time you take a flight, you count as a passenger.) On a recent October afternoon, the passengers waiting to board a flight from Los Angeles to London filled every chair in the gate area, with some sitting on the floor. No wonder they wore jeans.
You can still find exclusivity in the sky, of course, as long as you’re willing to pay. Today’s international airlines sell their upscale cabins as mile-high oases of pampered privacy. Could these cabins offer a re-creation of old-fashioned, ’50s-style glamour? To find out, I booked a flight from Los Angeles to London in Virgin Atlantic’s “Upper Class” cabin, which the airline designed to reflect “an air of natural glamour.” In economy seats, Virgin Atlantic passengers have to fight their neighbors for the armrest. But in Upper Class, which Forbes ranks as the best international business class, I enjoyed a private “suite”—a seat and ottoman that fold into a flat bed. The sides block your view of other passengers, creating a cozy sense of personal space. When you’re ready to turn in, you change into a complimentary black jersey “sleep suit,” and the flight attendant makes your bed. These amenities are all part of an international game of premium-class one-upmanship: ever-larger seats, more choices of food and entertainment, bigger work spaces with better computer hookups, increased privacy. Singapore Airlines recently announced a first-class flat bed thirty-five inches wide—or, as mischievous news reports noted, big enough for two.
On the way to London, I found plenty of luxury, from attentive meal service to a “hot hands” exfoliation-and-moisturizing treatment. But I didn’t find glamour—because airline glamour was never on the planes themselves. It was in the imagination, especially the imagination of people who could only dream of flying. Airline glamour never promised anything as mundane as elbow room, much less a flat bed, a massage, or an arugula salad. It promised a better world. Service and dress reflected the more formal era, but no one expected air travel to be comfortable. It was amazing just to have hot food above the clouds. As a rookie Pan Am stewardess in the mid-1960s, Aimée Bratt was struck by “how crowded it was on an airplane, no place to put anything, lines for the lavatories, no place to sit or stand … Passengers got their food trays, there was no choice of meals, drinks were served from a hand tray, six at a time, pillows and blankets were overhead, and there were no extra amenities like headsets or hot towels.” But, she writes in her memoir Glamour and Turbulence, “in those days nobody ever complained.” Travel itself was privilege enough. Airline glamour was not about the actual experience of flying but about the idea of air travel—and the ideals and identity it represented.
There were two distinct eras of airline glamour, each coincidentally reimagined in its own Leonardo DiCaprio movie. In the prewar era depicted in The Aviator, the planes themselves were glamorous, their up-to-the-minute streamlined forms embodying the promise of modernity and implying superhuman speed. Picture DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, stroking the shiny surface of his new aircraft to make sure the rivets are perfectly flush. In the early twentieth century, airplanes represented the future, a world made new. “The airplane is the symbol of the new age. The airplane arouses our energies and our faith,” wrote Le Corbusier. A journalist in the 1930s praised Newark International Airport as the “symbol of a new age”—there’s that phrase again—“the age of high speed.” (Reality was much bumpier.)