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.)
The postwar glamour of the jet age, on the other hand, celebrated the present as much as the future, the passengers and crew more than the planes. Air travel represented youth and adventure. It was an alternative to the nine-to-five regimentation of normal postwar life, a symbol of mid-century desire. Hence DiCaprio’s con man in Catch Me If You Can seduces his marks while wearing a Pan Am pilot’s uniform. A friend advised Jackie Kennedy on White House dinner parties: “Have pretty women, attractive men, guests who are en passant, the flavor of another language. This is the jet age, so have something new and changing.” Life photographers followed a real Pan Am pilot on a seven-day run that included time off for kayaking in the Mediterranean along a Beirut beach and discussing modern art with a painter in a Paris studio. At home with his wife and young daughters, the pilot said, “Sometimes I just stand in the yard watching the briefcase brigade go by.”