The Experience of a Lifetime – Airtravel Back Then and Now

I returned from a business trip to Kansas City, and as I sat on the plane, it suddenly occurred to me that I must have witnessed the stupefying safety pantomime over 400 times. That’s a whopping 1000 or so minutes shaved of my life, thank you FAA and EASA. And it doesn’t do any good either: just ask a fellow traveler to repeat what’s in the safety instructions and what to do if the plane crashed into the Hudson River, and you will only get back embarrassed smiles. I can guess what passengers will do if a plane makes an emergency landing: some will instinctively push and shove to get to the exit first.

OK, I’m exaggerating. Mostly I feel sorry for the crew that needs to go through the exercise, while the passengers are staring into their smartphones.

It’s not that I fly excessively, but thanks to my adventurous parents I had an early start getting airborne. I recall times when air travel was still “special”; reserved for a few businessmen or tourists that were perhaps a bit better off than the ordinary citizen. Any country was exotic back then: half of the world was out of bounds being communist and therefore utterly boring, and many of the other countries had no infrastructure to support mass tourism. Nowadays, if you haven’t visited Iceland, the Arabian peninsula, Chili, the Congo or Detroit you do not count as a well-traveled tourist. And these days, in every single country, you can buy exactly the same stuff. I know a Japanese couple that vacations every year in Tuscany, Italy, and friends of ours from Switzerland have been traveling with a camper through Yellowstone – every summer, eight years running. Get a life and stay at home, folks?

But I’m getting distracted. Back then (I am talking about the 1970s) when you entered an airplane, smoking was naturally not allowed. In the non-smoker section and until after take off that is, after that you could light up your cigarette, cigar or even a pipe. The crew was constantly emptying the ashtrays in the armrests. Air travel makes us humans nervous (surprisingly very few people are aware of this), and thus the cheap cigarettes bought in the tax-free shop allowed for a soothing and relaxing smoke.
The smoky air and the lack of water offered (in those days nobody realized that dehydration is an unpleasant accompanying effect of air travel) put a terrible strain on travelers, leading to colds and coughs. My mother suffered from asthma, so we usually sat in the non-smoking section; enjoying the recycled, second hand smoke coming from the vents.
Halfway during the flight, a movie screen was lowered in the front, and a beamer came out of the overhead. A badly edited movie was projected on the screen to keep passengers occupied. These systems regularly broke down, so sometimes there was no movie to watch, but in that case we could revert to a handful of radio channels; two with pop-, one with classical- and one with jazz music. After an intercontinental flight you knew all the tunes by heart, as the programs only had about twenty pieces each.
The door to the cockpit had no lock and sometimes even stood open (thanks to Osama bin Laden, this ridiculous practice was stopped). The captain regularly walked through the cabin to chat with the passengers. You could ask the stewardess (there were no stewards back then) for a visit to the cockpit and the pilot would explain the basics of aviation.
Due to security, you had to arrive at the airport early: for intercontinental flights this meant about 45 minutes before takeoff. For domestic flights three minutes sufficed. Security checks consisted of a quick look at your passport,  your hand luggage wasn’t scanned. I recall passengers sitting on the plane with taped-up boxes; anybody’s guess what they contained. Customs did take those boxes apart after landing; I once witnessed the extraction of a 6 pound fish from such a box (its freshness debatable after an eight hour flight). Once, on a flight in the USA, a passenger’s gun was confiscated. This didn’t upset us too much. After all, we were too busy smoking in the line for customs. Ashtrays were available next to all waiting lines. We did throw our cigarette butts on the floor, I recall that a lady once scolded me, stating that this practice was “frowned upon” in the US. I was young and much ashamed.
On most flights you had to pay for alcoholic beverages, soft drinks were free, but water was hard to get, sometimes I way thirsty. At the airports there was very little distraction: a single tax free shop and one restaurant were all that you could visit, if those were available at all. Many terminals were rather empty buildings; a counter and uncomfortable metal chairs.
A few things didn’t change over the years: the crews were just as polite back then as they are now, which is surprising in light of the higher numbers of passengers and increased security measures these days. There are a few more female pilots and a few more male stewards. The passengers are the same too: most almost unnoticeable, a very few very obnoxious – which is in my opinion usually explainable by higher levels of flight anxiety.

Flying back then was more of an experience: the planes were louder, the flights took longer, the seats were harder, the Jetlag lasted ages… and the destinations were more exotic.


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Originally posted 2018-10-18 05:00:50.

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