Air travel has changed a lot in the last couple of decades – and even more again in the last couple of years. While flying may be more accessible for the general public, it is now a much different and more complicated experience than it was back in the day. This is what airlines looked like in the ’70s. Some parts may make you wish we could go back, others… not so much.
Airlines In The 1970s
The 1970s brought a lot of new innovations to airlines and air travel. In this decade, we saw the invention and first flights of the 747 jet planes. These planes, however, did not look like the ones we know today with little legroom and touch screens. Rather, the planes had two decks connected by spiral staircases and carried more than 500 passengers. In-flight entertainment was displayed on large-screen TVs. (1)
To be competitive, some airlines started offering slightly pricier tickets, but that came with perks. These included a free branded shot glass or even a free bottle of booze for every (of age) passenger. There was free-flowing alcohol, including champagne in coach, and meals cooked to your liking when your stewardess carved your meat right there in the aisle. Some airlines even had a bar and a full-sized piano in the middle. (2)
Even the bathrooms were beautiful. Larger than what most of us have in our homes, they were luxurious places. The innovation of “vibration-free” planes in the 70s also meant that that bathrooms had fresh-cut flowers in them.
Getting On The Plane
Obviously, the actual planes and what went on inside them were quite different than what we know nowadays. In 2021, getting on a plane can be quite a lengthy and complex process. There are a number of security checks, strict rules about what you can and can’t bring on the plane, and no one who does not also have a ticket can accompany you to the gate. With the COVID-19 pandemic, there are now even more rules. Every airline around the world requires the use of face masks, and each country has its own rules about who can enter, what you need in order to fly, and many with their own external costs.
In the 1970s, prior to the 9/11 attacks in New York City, getting on a plane was shockingly easy. Minimal security checks, you could bring essentially whatever you wanted on the plane with you. ID wasn’t even necessary, so you could use someone else’s ticket to fly and the crew wouldn’t bat an eye. The door to the cockpit was usually left open and many times children would be invited to sit in there and watch the pilots work. (3)
It Wasn’t All Good
Though tedious, the increased security of flying today is probably a net positive. Also, to be honest, I don’t mind getting on a plane knowing I’m less likely to be sitting next to someone who has a contagious illness. If my seat buddy is sick, at least with masks I’m less likely to catch it.
Still, you may be sitting there wondering why we got rid of the “party planes” of the 1970s. For starters, having rip-roaring drunk passengers did lead to some onboard accidents that eventually shut some airlines down. Not to mention that the ability to have free alcohol and steak dinners onboard meant that flying was only something the wealthy could afford. While flying a coach now might be less comfortable and luxurious, it is certainly more accessible.
Secondly, if you are a person who likes to use their time on a plane to rest – read a book, watch a movie, or actually sleep – good luck doing that on a plane in the 1970s. Remember, these were quite often like bars in the sky. This means they were loud, and they only got louder as people drank more.
Thirdly, in the 70s you were allowed to smoke on the plane. For smokers this was and likely still seems like an absolute paradise. For non-smokers, however, it was horrible. It stank, was hazy, and the air was difficult to breathe, and when you exited the plane? You and everything you had on you wreaked of nicotine and smoke.
Flying Was Not For The Feminists
The airline industry was also quite sexist back then. Women couldn’t be pilots and men certainly couldn’t be stewardesses. The rules for flight attendants were also very strict. Women were chosen based on how attractive they were. Uniforms included heals, short, tight skirts, and even sometimes hot pants (tight, short shorts). You had to be single to be a flight attendant, meaning that if you wanted to get married, you had to quit your job. If you were already married, then your dream of being a flight attendant was quite literally grounded.
If that wasn’t bad enough, fight attendants were also subjected to very strict beauty standards. They had certain weight requirements for their height and were forbidden from gaining weight. If they didn’t have “the look”, they wouldn’t get hired. On top of that, they were also subject to harassment by male passengers and pilots.
The Bottom Line
So yes, air travel certainly was a comfier, higher-class experience than what we know it to be today. Unless you are lucky enough to be able to afford business or even first-class, then you’re stuck dealing with long security lines, very little legroom, and less-than-ideal plane food. That being said, planes are smoke-free, much less sexist than they used to be, and you don’t have to be a part of the upper class to fly. So while the idea of a roaming party through the clouds sounds fun, I’ll take my security, accessibility, and (better) equality any day.
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- “Was air travel in the 1970s really as groovy (and boozy) as we remember?” USA Today. February 14, 2016.
- “Glamorous flight attendants and relaxed security… but everything reeked of smoke and the planes were ‘noisy as hell’: What it was REALLY like flying in the 1960s and 70s” Daily Mail. Januray, 9, 2017.
- “The Luxury of Flying in the 1970s” History of Yesterday. December 3, 2020.