If you fly a lot, you have heard the nostalgia about a long-gone Golden Age of air travel. During this fabled time, which is said to have occurred as commercial aviation expanded through the 1950s into the jet age of the 1960s, passengers dressed up to fly on airplanes where glamorous stewardesses wearing white gloves served beef bourguignon on fine china.
The Golden Age of air travel is actually today — if you are among the lucky ones flying in first class or business class on a premium international airline. Even as you read this, air travelers around the globe are slumbering contentedly through a night at 37,000 feet, having been tucked into bed by doting flight attendants on airplanes where the food is haute cuisine, the wine is vintage and the price … well. OK, consider the price.
If you wish and are a person of means, you can fly first-class round trip in luxury between Los Angeles and Dubai on an Emirates Airline A380 superjumbo jet. You will enjoy superb food and drink and be cosseted in a private compartment with a sliding door, a lie-flat seat with mattress, a vanity, a personal minibar and flat-screen television set, and a luxury bathroom down the aisle where you can take a shower. The fare: $32,840.
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“If you have the money, you can buy more choice,” said Rene Foss, who has been a flight attendant for a major airline since 1985. “So if you choose to spend $10,000 or $20,000 or however more, you can have that private berth. And if you don’t have the money, you have a different choice in service. It’s called main-cabin cattle car,” said Foss, who wrote “Around the World in a Bad Mood,” a book of humorous observations, mostly from the cattle-car section.
Foss’ late mother, Maxyne, was a flight attendant on the old Northwest Orient Airlines during the putative Golden Age of the 1950s. Foss still has her mother’s mementos, including menus of multicourse meals available throughout the plane, and even a pair of those white gloves. She also has a brochure for the legendary two-deck Pan Am Stratocruiser Clipper service on four-engine propeller airliners. Amenities included a women’s lounge with “lovely leather walls,” seven-course meals catered by Maxim’s of Paris and “for the ladies — orchids.”
At a time of anxiety about flying, airline advertisements emphasized customer service and safety. A 1958 ad for United Air Lines, reproduced in “Come Fly With Us: A Global History of the Airline Hostess” by Johanna Omelia and Michael Waldcock (Ailemo Books, 2013), shows a stewardess fixing the necktie of a small boy and boasts of extra personal attention “when a traveler needs a hand.” The ad continues: “The extra care is evident, too, in the fact that there is radar on every plane.”
On the other hand, flying at all in this former Golden Age was mostly limited to those who could afford high prices, before intense competition and fare-cutting accompanied deregulation of the industry in 1978. Technology, including elaborate premium cabin and in-flight entertainment innovations, began more sharply delineating first and business class from coach when British Airways and Virgin Atlantic introduced lie-flat beds in luxurious new international business-class cabins in the mid-’90s.
“Since then, it’s astonishing how much money and research has gone just into the development of new seats,” Foss said. “Back in the ’50s there was none of that. It was more like, here’s a drink with a paper umbrella in it and a nice meal; enjoy yourself while we get this plane up in the air and down again.”
In recent years, as global airlines scrambled to attract the lucrative high-end business travel market, many international airlines shrank or even eliminated cabin space for first class, in favor of expanding and upgrading business-class cabins. So while some people do still choose to pay for that $32,840 private compartment, much of the high-end market now is in business class, where airlines have been spending huge sums to compete.
“We were the first airline to introduce in-seat entertainment for business-class passengers; a spa in the airport lounge; limo transfers — and now some of these things are the industry norm,” said Craig Kreeger, the chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, which, like some other airlines, provides chauffeur-driven cars to and from the airport for passengers in international premium cabins.
His airline, which is making final cabin touches on a fleet of new Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes, invites some of its top frequent fliers to participate in discussions on luxury amenities in development, and even had some of them “stay overnight in our test facility to test out the onboard beds,” Kreeger said.
Virgin is among the global airlines that routinely turn up on travel-media lists of the top 10 business-class services. Others usually include Singapore, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, Emirates, Etihad, Korean and Qatar. Airlines based in the United States seldom appear on such lists, but all of the major domestic carriers are investing heavily to upgrade premium cabins.
They are also increasing luxury amenities in premium cabins on long domestic flights. Edward H. Bastian, president of Delta Air Lines, said, “All of our New York-Los Angeles flights will feature our premium flatbed products starting July 1.” Delta plans to increase its premium-class revenue stream by $500 million a year in the next three years, he said.
As luxury expands, competition has helped limit prices, at least in business class. Round-trip business-class fares across the Atlantic have fallen from highs in the $10,000 range six or seven years ago. A recent check on Orbitz showed remarkable uniformity. Whatever the airline, round-trip business-class fares between Kennedy Airport in New York and Heathrow in London were $6,474. Coach fares were $1,471. Fares for premium economy, or economy plus — a better class of coach — were about half of business-class prices.
After airlines introduced premium economy fares, many business travelers whose companies would not pay for international business-class travel found it easier to get approval for that higher level of coach travel, with extra legroom and better service. But rather than eroding the far more profitable business-class market, premium economy has mostly elevated business travelers from the deprivations of basic coach.
The International Air Transport Association says the number of passengers who flew in first class and business class on world airlines grew 4.1 percent in February from February 2013. Premium passengers now account for about 8.3 percent of all passengers, though that is down from about 9.5 percent in 2007.
Paul Metselaar, the chief executive of Ovation Corporate Travel, said premium-class travel strengthened late last year. “My clients are mostly the high-end corporate deal makers,” he said. “Our clients across the board are traveling much more globally, and much more in general. Most, I would say, are flying business, with all the top folks still flying first class.”
The new Golden Age of air travel will include spacious enclosed first-class compartments on Etihad Airways’ A380 aircraft, each with a reclining armchair and an 80-inch-long bed, the airline announced recently.
Today, luxury is not confined to the plane. Airlines and airports have introduced premium services for the affluent, including a sumptuous private terminal in Frankfurt, Germany, where a private limousine drives first-class Lufthansa passengers across the tarmac to the plane, and the new $15 billion Hamad International Airport in Doha, managed by Qatar Airways, a leader in premium flying.
Once in a while, a passenger who is typically in cattle class is allowed — mainly through a lucky upgrade — to enter that other world, like Mary Kirby. Kirby is the founder of Runway Girl Network, a website that covers the in-flight cabin experience.
She was recently upgraded to luxury business class on an international Qatar Airways flight and was driven in a private car from the plane at Doha to the terminal. “You can make the argument that for select fliers on select top-tier carriers, this is definitely the Golden Age — if you’re wealthy,” Kirby said. “But that’s the top 1 percent at most. For most of us, we have this kind of race to the bottom in economy class.” She said she feared that the back of the plane on international flights might become even more unpleasant as airlines consider buying slimmer seats to cram more customers into coach.
Foss, the flight attendant, says that economics drive the rapidly growing inequality in air travel. As competition grew and fares fell after deregulation, air travel became “affordable for everybody — which in a sense was wonderful,” she said.
With their intense focus on attracting the relatively small number of fliers who pay top prices for levels of luxury never before seen in air travel, airlines are simply following the money, Foss said. But no matter what, all fliers are sharing a small aluminum tube miles above the Earth.
Because they can pay for luxury service, “some people are VIPs,” she said. “They’re going to be pampered; they’ll get a special this, a special that. I don’t get into that mindset. My job as a flight attendant is primarily to ensure safety.”
In a crisis, she said, “I’m not pulling out the VIPs first, not when my job at the door is to get everybody out in 90 seconds or less. At that point, everybody on the airplane is a VIP to me.”