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How Air Travel Has Changed Over the Last Century

When the Wright brothers developed the first powered plane that took off from Kitty Hawk in 1903, they likely didn’t picture the airline industry as it exists today. That 12-second flight evolved into a new industry, one that would serve both business and leisure travel. Each decade has witnessed innovations in air travel but also historical challenges. While 2020 forced everyone to rethink air travel, experts say consumer demand won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

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01The 1920s

circa 1929: The cabin in the Golden Ray or Rayon d'Or, an aircraft on the Paris to London service from French Airliners. Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

The Spanish flu had taken its toll on the world as the 1920s emerged. Although aircraft had evolved from World War I biplanes to modern airliners, and there were some commercial flights, airlines were not profitable. Planes held around 20 passengers, mostly businessmen and the very wealthy. The cabins were unpressurized, making those early flights long, uncomfortable, and noisy because pilots had to fly at lower altitudes. Male air stewards served food and drink to ease the passengers’ discomfort. By the end of the decade, the airlines started to flourish.

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02The 1930s

23rd July 1937: The crew of Imperial Airways liner Heracles (background) at Croydon Aerodrome before the flight during which the airliner will complete a million miles in service. From left to right: Baikie (steward); Hart (steward); Raeburn (wireless officer); Dismore (captain); Jeffreys (first officer); and A C Smith (steward). J. A. Hampton / Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

Air travel was proliferating in the early 1930s, but it was still expensive, affordable only to wealthy travelers, politicians, and celebrities. In America, around 6000 Americans flew commercially in 1930, but just four short years later, 450,000 passengers had traveled by air. By the time the mid-1930s rolled around, women had taken over flight attendant roles. Passengers enjoyed a variety of amenities, including plush surroundings, beds, and changing rooms. Commercial air travel took a giant leap with the development of the Douglas DC-3, which was faster and more comfortable than previous passenger planes.

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03The 1940s

A BOAC British Overseas Airways Corporation Boeing 377 Stratocruiser long-range piston engined commercial airliner taxing in to London Heathrow airport on 15 October 1949 in London, United Kingdom. Central Press / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Just as plane travel was hitting its stride, casual travel came to a halt in 1942 as World War II began. The government diverted all resources to the war effort, and in the U.S., the military took over 200 of the 360 airlines. As the war started to wind down, manufacturers designed new commercial planes. The first pressurized plane, the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, was much more comfortable to ride in at 20,000 feet. Airlines provided live, in-flight entertainment, and in 1946, for the first time, flight attendants served frozen dinners to passengers. Coach fares provided more affordable flights. In 1949, the first low-cost airline was created.

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04The 1950s

RENTON WA - AUGUST 10 1958: Boeing 707-120's receive the final touches at the Boeing plant in Renton Washington on August 10 1958. This plane made history when Pan American World Airways inaugerated the first trans-Atlantic jet service between New York and Paris in October 1958. Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images

As the 1950s arrived, so did the golden age of travel. Instead of piston engines, airlines made the switch to jet engines that were bigger, faster, and more economical. Yet, they weren’t safer. Between 1950 and 1960, there were four crashes per year. Faster planes phased out the need for sleeper services. Air traffic increased significantly, with massive boosts in overseas travel. For the first time, air travel passengers outnumbered train passengers. Flight attendants served gourmet fare, cigars, and lots of booze to keep them happy.

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05The 1960s

Concorde 002 taking off on its maiden flight from Filton, near Bristol. Tim Graham / Getty Images

As the golden age of travel continued, meals became elaborate affairs, with several courses and prime foods like steak and lobster. On some airlines, if you were flying first-class, the chef served you personally. Airlines expected passengers to dress appropriately, and if their outfits weren’t up to par, they weren’t allowed to board the plane. Movies became much more prevalent on planes in the 60s, and the decade had its share of air industry innovations. American Airlines created the first booking automation system, and in 1969, the most iconic commercial jet in the world, the Concorde, made its first test flight.

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06The 1970s

A B.O.A.C. Boeing 747 Jumbo jet takes off at Heathrow Airport, London, 7th April 1971. The aircraft have been due to begin their service to New York, but have been grounded by a pay dispute Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The decade started out strong for air travel, with the first Boeing 747 passenger flight. The plane could hold 450 people, making it possible for more middle-class travelers to explore the world. In 1970, the average pilot was 34 years old. Plane travel was a much calmer scenario than it is today. Several discount airlines also emerged during the 70s, including Southwest Airlines. Air traffic increased, and airports moved operations farther away from cities to accommodate more runways. The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act said the government could no longer control airline ticket prices, opening the door for free-market competition between airlines.

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07The 1980s

QUEENS, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 17: Planes wait in tarmac to take off at La Guardia Airport November 17, 1988 in New York City. Air traffic congestion has been at its highest in major airports across the nation. Yvonne Hemsey / Getty Images

While some budget airlines failed in the 1980s, Virgin Atlantic Airways launched, offering a luxurious experience at a low price. Security wasn’t as stringent in the 80s. Passengers could visit the cockpit during the flight, enjoy complimentary meals, and check as many bags as they wished. Each plane seat had a built-in ashtray in the back, and passengers could smoke during the journey. But by 1988, the Federal Aviation Administration banned smoking on short domestic flights. A year later, they expanded the smoking ban to include longer domestic flights up to six hours.

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08The 1990s

A woman reading on a passenger plane equipped with an Airfone, an air-ground radiotelephone service, November 1994. Barbara Alper / Getty Images

During the 1990s, people booked flights by calling the airlines or buying them through a travel agent, who then mailed the tickets to the purchaser. Friends and families could see departees off at the gate and greet them when they returned. Chairs reclined a mere six inches instead of all the way back. Everyone watched the same movie on a single large screen. Smokers could still enjoy a cigarette on extended flights, and passengers enjoyed free food and plenty of room for carry-ons in the overhead bins.

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09The 2000s and 2010s

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 1: Signs warn travelers to prepare their belongings for screening as they arrive at Los Angeles International Airport May 1, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. Tom Blank, assistant administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), announced that 3,000 full-time baggage and passenger screener jobs would be cut by the end of May. The federal government seeks to cut a total of 6,000 positions across the country by the end of September. David McNew / Getty Images

Self-service kiosks appeared in some airports in 2000, though most travelers still preferred checking in with a human. Twenty-one years ago, non-passengers could still move through security gates with passengers. That all changed after September 11, 2001, when flying and airport security checks became the norm. Air travel declined and didn’t pick up again until the end of the decade. Innovations like online booking and paperless flights became possible. By 2010, more people were flying than ever before, but passengers had to deal with smaller seats and less legroom due to airlines seeking profitability.

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10The 2020s

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 15: Adam Carver, 38, wears a mask to protect against coronavirus while on a nearly empty Delta flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport o JFK on March 15, 2020 near New York City. Carver, a Brooklyn-based tech entrepreneur, was returning from an extended trip to Asia to help his sister and her five children during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. John Moore / Getty Images

When 2020 rolled around, so did a pandemic that severely impacted the entire travel and business industry. Due to COVID-19, most flights require masks and some countries admit only those who are vaccinated. The year saw bankruptcies, furloughs, and layoffs, as airlines struggled to stay afloat. Passenger numbers were the lowest in a decade. Yet, ticket purchasing became more flexible, and change fees went away, for the most part. More travelers sought out sustainable tourism options, and climate issues subsided a bit as a result of fewer flights. As 2021 arrived, air travel started to rebound. Travel industry experts expect holiday travel to outpace pre-pandemic levels.

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