Up, Up, and Away

Today, air travel is just another form of mass transit. Is there any going back to the glamorous days of yore?

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.

From the archives:

"Greetings From Airworld!" (July/August 2006)
Six days in five airports—a survivor's guide. By Wayne Curtis

"Uncivil Aviation" (April 2001)
How a small city's airport became the capital of air rage. By Wayne Curtis

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.)

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.”

Today’s airlines can’t recapture this jet-age glamour, not just because planes are crowded and less-than-luxurious but because society has changed. Home and work, labor and leisure, are not as separate as they once were. And jet-age glamour assumed a world run by an easily identifiable elite. People who flew, especially internationally, seemed like a special circle: the best and the brightest, the international playboys, the tennis pros, the carefree college students with time to see the world. Spy stories, from the James Bond novels to I Spy, disguised their heroes as members of this lucky leisure class. On the ground, the briefcase brigade dreamed of being like them.

Jet-age glamour depended on a particular worldview, as well: the innocent internationalism expressed in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics or the Miss Universe pageant, with their colorful costumes and shared aspirations; the sunny faith of Star Trek and trick-or-treating for UNICEF. The jet age’s glamorous heroes traveled a world of superficial exoticism and essential sameness. In the 1966 film The Endless Summer, two young surfers fly around the world in search of the perfect wave. Everywhere, from Africa to Australia, they find friendly people who love the beach.

Contrary to popular belief, airline glamour didn’t disappear with the coming of U.S. airline deregulation, in 1978. The magic had slipped away at least a decade earlier, as a new, negative idea of air travel seized the popular imagination. Terrorist hijackers turned glamour into horror, killing passengers, blowing up planes, and puncturing internationalist ideals. Airports replaced the free-flowing, glass-ringed spaces of their terminals with security checkpoints and fortified blank walls. Arthur Hailey’s 1968 novel, Airport, and its movie spin-offs, portrayed flying as stressful, sordid, and dangerous. “In the popular imagination,” writes architectural historian Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport, “air travel was now equated with boredom and disaster.” The loss of glamour helped make deregulation possible. If airlines were just another business, why shouldn’t they compete in an open marketplace?

Today air travel is just a more or less enjoyable way to get from place to place, not an emotionally resonant symbol of something greater than itself. We frequent flyers forget how unnatural it is to zoom through the air in a metal tube, and we imagine that airline glamour was all about real silverware and perfectly coiffed stewardesses—the experience on the plane. But glamour is always an illusion, an imaginative picture with the blemishes removed. With experience comes disillusionment, no matter how luxurious the reality may be. The glamour of twentieth-century air travel helped to persuade once-fearful travelers to take to the skies and encouraged parochial Americans to go out and see the world. The crowds on today’s planes may have destroyed that glamour. But they also demonstrate its power.