Air travel wasn't always like taking a bus. It was a luxury and cost like it — according to a study last year by Compass Lexecon, a flight from Los Angeles to Boston in 1941 wasaround $4,539 a person in today’s money, and would have taken 15 hours and 15 minutes with a dozen stops. By 2015, the average nonstop flight cost $481 and took six hours. We get it, though: Even though you're paying far less, it feels as if you're getting less, and in many ways, you aren't wrong. Here are just some of the perks you now pay fees for ($23 on average, compared with $1.69 in today's dollars in 1979) or just don't get at all.
SHORTER SECURITY LINES
Keep in mind that passengers didn't even need to be screened until 1973. You could arrive 30 minutes before a flight, check in curbside with your bags and just stroll right onto your plane. Even in the '80s, fears of hijackings didn't slow things down all that much, as there wereno security checkpoints and only one place to check in and drop baggage.
There were spiral staircases between two floors. There were widescreen movies in the cabins. There were bars and cocktail lounges. Fuel prices and advancing technology took the 747 out of duty, but during the 1970s and '80s, it was basically a slower, domestic, more down-home Concorde.
From 1970 to about 1974, American Airlines pulled 60 seats out of its 747s to create room for a lounge with a Wurlitzer electric piano and bar with free cocktails. Other airlines began installing lounges of their own.
American Airlines makes people in premium seating pay extra for “free” alcohol, but it's difficult to find the free beer and cocktails of international flights. In the Golden Days of travel, booze, at times including Champagne in coach, was the in-flight entertainment — sometimes crucial to keeping good humor during flights that hopscotched from place to place — and passengers might come off planes completely smashed.
No, that Old Fashioned you made with a sugar packet and a mini bottle of whiskey doesn't count. As recently as the '80s and '90s, Bloody Marys came with celery sticks, maraschino cherries made their way into the ice cubes, and you could actually squeeze the wedges. Now? You might get a cocktail on an international flight, but no domestic flight will actually fix you a drink in coach or economy.
LUXURY MEALS ...
When airlines were catering to a fairly new market and wanted to attract passengers with something other than price, they'd try to one-up each other with extravagant meal offerings. Multiple-course meals weren't out of the question and, if you were willing to chance it, lobster was on the menu. Airlines such as Pan Am would carve you roast beef or ham in the aisle regularly on certain flights.
… OR EVEN STANDARD IN-FLIGHT MEALS
At one point, you bought your ticket and picked "vegetarian" or "meat." But when Continental merged with United in 2010, it stopped serving free in-flight meals — and it had been the lone holdout for domestic flights. Now an in-flight meal is basically a box lunch bought with a credit card.
SILVERWARE AND GLASSES
You'll still get these in premium cabins — and they're lovely — but outright thievery makes cutlery and glasses disappear on some airlines. For economy, coach, and even business-class passengers, the best place to find actual silverware and glassware from major airlines is on eBay.
WINE WITH DINNER
Even when airlines phased out the free booze, most still served a free glass of wine with each meal in a real wine glass. Oyster says this is why the '80s were the real Golden Age of domestic flight.
Pan Am’s supposedly “vibration-free” 707 Clipper put fresh flowers arrangements on every first-class tray table during dinner until the late 1970s, assuring that they wouldn't spill during turbulence.
Now-defunct Braniff International hired architect Alexander Girard to spruce up its planes in the 1960s and '70s. The “End of the Plain Plane” used a palette of 15 bright colors and 57 variations of Herman Miller fabrics that carried over to gate lounges, ticket offices, and the corporate headquarters. When the company expanded into Latin America, art from Brazil, Mexico, and Peru were added inside aircraft, and it made another splurge in the 1970s hiring artist Alexander Calder to paint patterns on each plane. Air France commissioned cabin artwork too.
Braniff hired designer Emilio Pucci in 1965 to create a quick-change flight attendant uniform — one outfit to greet passengers, another to serve meals, then culottes for the rest of the flight. Ads for the “air strip” probably wouldn’t have passed muster even five years later.
When Braniff and Texas International offered flights from Dallas to Houston for just $13 in 1970 (about $87, adjusted for inflation), Southwest charged $26 for tickets but threw in a a full-size bottle of premium alcohol that a passenger could take home. This caught the eye of execs traveling on company expense accounts, who snatched up those fares to snag the free bottles.
In the early 1980s, Continental Airlines outfitted some DC-10s as “pubs” with walk-up wet bars, circular tables with swivel chairs, and two-player “Pong” video games — cutting-edge technology at the time.
Sleeping pods are back for travelers who pay for the perk; in the late 1940s, the Boeing Stratocruiser’s key feature was that every seat in the main cabin, even in economy, could be adjusted to form enough sleeping berths for every passenger. Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-6s had beds too.
INFLIGHT COCKPIT TOURS
Kids used to get cockpit tours all the time. But in 2001, for all the right reasons, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act ordered airlines to "fortify cockpit doors to deny access from the cabin to the pilots in the cockpit." Kids might get a tour today while the plane is on the ground, but it's a long shot.
Airlines used to give wing pins to children all the time, but it's now difficult to get them without a specific request. In fact, until 2016 when they brought them back, American Airlines had ceased the practice entirely. Several airlines still don't give them away.
MEETING UP AT THE GATE
At one point, you could get to the gate without any ID at all. Your family could either drop you off right at your plane or pick you up. Naturally, this all changed after the terrorist attacks in 2001, but Pittsburgh Airport istrying it again through a TSA pilot program.
Not postcards of your destination, but of the flight itself, with a picture of the plane or the meal you were going to be served. In the 1950s, you wrote to people on the ground about the flight — basically the first text you now send after the “fasten seatbelt sign” turns off when the plane lands, but this one wouldn't arrive until days later.
Though some carriers still give free blankets to customers, it's a perk that's disappearing quickly. Germaphobes don't like the idea of reusing unwashed blankets, while folks who get them for free in first class are stealing so many that the perk may disappear entirely.
Drinking water should be as much a “perk” in planes as it is in prisons, but for some airlines it's a corner worth cutting. Spirit Airlines charges $3 for a bottle of water — you might get a cup of it only grudgingly. When travel tips for your airline include bringing a water bottle, that’s no-frills.
Don't blame Southwest Airlines' “cattle call” boarding system: It isn't all that difficult to get seats together on those flights. But since 2011, American, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, and United Airlines increased the number of coach seats that require an extra fee. In many cases, that means paying an extra $25 to $50 for adjacent seats.
Coach seats once had 3 to 6 inches more legroom. In the1950s, economy class looked more like business class does now and first class was basically a small hotel suite. You were paying enough for these flights at the time that it was the least the airlines could do.
ACTUAL WINDOW SEATS
The average seat pitch, or amount of legroom, in economy or coach class used to be about 35 inches. It's since shrunk closer to 31, even as U.S. passengers get larger. But airplane windows are designed to maintain the structural integrity of the aircraft — and with a particular seat pitch in mind. If an airline wants to add rows and shrink legroom, the windows won't line up, and you can actually wind up in a “window seat” between windows.
People didn't just put on suits and dresses for flights in the 1950s and '60s: George Hobica, who worked as an executive for Eastern Airlines in the 1980s and now runs Airfarewatchdog, told Conde Nast traveler he once showed up for a flight in a sport coat but without a tie, only to be turned away. Staff usually got first-class seats; he had to beg for economy. If you flew first-class, you were expected to look the part.
At one point, you could join an airline rewards program and be assured at least one bump to first class. But as airlines have raised the bar for the number of miles necessary for frequent flyers to get this perk, it's become far more elusive. A silver-level member in Delta's program technically can get an upgrade, but shouldn't hold their breath.
How else were airline employees flying first class and airlines ripping out seats for lounges? “Back then, flights were 50 percent empty. There was always a middle seat empty, the rows were spaced farther apart, and it was a much better experience,” Hobica said. Today room to spread out is more rare, as U.S. flights have “load factor” of 86 percent capacity — down from 91 percent in 2013.
It was rampant on flights in the '50s and '60s, and not unimaginable on short domestic flights until 1988 — and not banned from flights entirely until 2000. If you turned 18 this year, you're the first adult to live without knowing the scent of nicotine on an airliner. Smokers might miss it, but their fellow passengers likely don’t.