In the 21st century, it is commonplace to travel by plane—and many Americans are familiar with the flying experience—but this wasn't always the case.
In the early days of commercial flight, the flying experience was harsh and uncomfortable. To even get the opportunity to fly was considered a luxury. Learn more about the evolution of the commercial flying experience in the United States using objects from the Museum's collection.
Jump to: 1914-1927 1927-1941 1941-1958 1958-Today
Novel and exciting; loud and uncomfortable—an experience few people ever got to relish or regret.
In the early years of flight, pilots and the occasional passenger sat in open cockpits exposed to wind and weather. Even in Europe, where large transports carried passengers in comparative luxury, the ride was harsh, loud, and uncomfortable.
Mostly pilots. Most early airplanes could carry only a single extra person, if any. Few passenger-carrying airlines existed, and none survived for very long. Those that did catered to wealthy travelers who could afford the expensive ticket prices. In this period, most airlines made their money by flying the mail for the federal government. Except for the occasional hop in the spare seat of a stunt preforming Curtiss Jenny for a joy ride, few Americans flew as passengers in planes, and even fewer used them as a means to travel.
Joseph L. Mortensen navigated the air mail route from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Reno, Nevada, in 1920 using this scrolling map and knee board. This object is called a "knee board" because a pilot would strap it to their leg. They would turn the knobs to scroll the map as they flew their route.
Why would this be more useful than a folding map?
Lt. James Edgerton flew the mail from Philadelphia to Washington during the first scheduled air mail flight on May 15, 1918. He wore this helmet and coat during that flight. Edgerton left the Army in 1919 and became the Chief of Flying for the U.S. Air Mail Service.
This is Lt. James Edgerton's logbook, with entries for May 14 and 15, 1918. Pilots wrote down their experiences so other pilots could learn from them. What problems did Edgerton have? How long did it take him to fly from Bustleton Field to Washington?
On May 15, 1918, Lt. Howard P. Culver navigated between Philadelphia and Belmont Park, near New York City, during the first scheduled air mail flight, using this liquid-filled compass installed in his Curtiss Jenny.
This letter was carried on the first scheduled air mail flight. What does the letter predict will happen in the future of travel by plane?
Despite the airlines' cheerful advertising, early air travel continued to be far from comfortable. It was expensive too.
Flying was loud, cold, and unsettling. Airliners were not pressurized, so they flew at low altitudes and were often bounced about by wind and weather. Air sickness was common. Airlines provided many amenities to ease passenger stress, but air travel remained a rigorous adventure well into the 1940s.
Flying was very expensive. Only business travelers and the wealthy could afford to fly. Most people still rode trains or buses for intercity travel because flying was so expensive. A coast-to-coast round trip cost around $260, about half of the price of a new automobile. But despite the expense and discomforts, each year commercial aviation attracted thousands of new passengers willing to sample the advantages and adventure of flight. America's airline industry expanded rapidly, from carrying only 6,000 passengers in 1929 to more than 450,000 by 1934, to 1.2 million by 1938. Still, only a tiny fraction of the traveling public flew.
Noise was a problem in early airliners. To communicate with passengers, cabin crew often had to resort to speaking through small megaphones to be heard above the din of the engines and the wind. The noise in a typical Ford Tri-Motor during takeoff was nearly 120 decibels, loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss.
How Noisy Was It?
- Normal conversation: 60 dB
- Busy street traffic: 70 dB
- Vacuum cleaner: 80 dB
- Front rows of rock concert: 110 dB
- Ford Tri-Motor during takeoff: 120 dB
- Threshold of pain: 130 dB
- Instant perforation of eardrum: 160 dB
"There is still a newness about air travel, and, though statistics demonstrate its safety, the psychological effect of having a girl on board is enormous."
-Comment about the addition of stewardesses from an airline magazine, 1935
A nurse from Iowa, Ellen Church wanted to become an airline pilot but realized that was not possible for a woman in her day. So in 1930, she approached Steve Simpson at Boeing Air Transport with the novel idea of placing nurses aboard airliners. She convinced him that the presence of women nurses would help relieve the traveling public's fear of flying. The addition of female flight attendants fundamentally changed the flying experience—sometimes to the detriment of the female flight attendants themselves—and would continue to shape it for years to come.
Passengers on T.W.A.'s Douglas DC-2s were given overnight flight bags for transcontinental flights.
American issued this overnight flight bag to passengers flying on its Curtiss Condors and later on its Douglas Sleeper Transports.
To ease pressure on passengers' ears during climb and descent, stewards on Eastern Air Lines flights in the late 1930s offered chewing gum from elegant polished steel dispensers.
Why do your ears hurt?
Your ears pop during takeoff and landing because of tiny tubes, full of air, that connect your ears to your throat. Air pressure changes during ascent and descent cause pressure differences within your head, and those tubes become blocked. When you yawn or swallow, you open the tubes and equalize the pressure. Chewing gum helps you generate saliva to swallow, but you don't really need the gum at all!
In 1955, for the first time, more people in the United States traveled by air than by train. By 1957 airliners had replaced ocean liners as the preferred means of crossing the Atlantic.
After World War II, passenger travel surged to new levels. When wartime travel restrictions ended, airlines were overwhelmed with passengers. New carriers emerged, and new technology began to revolutionize civil aviation.
The era of mass air travel had begun—for some. African Americans could choose to fly, but few did. Many airport facilities were segregated and discrimination was widespread. While the airlines were not legally segregated, airports often were. Throughout the South, inferior airport accommodations discouraged African Americans from flying. Until the Civil Rights movement began to bring about change, air travel remained mostly for white people.
Since the federal government regulated prices, airlines competed by offering various amenities. Whether United's "red carpet service," for which a brochure can be seen here, or American's "service fit for a king and queen," airline advertising made sure passengers knew they would be treated well. As one American Airlines publication noted, "travel by air should be a time of leisure, a chance for you to escape humdrum worries."
Matchbooks like this one were provided to passengers interested in smoking during their flight. According to one brochure, cigar and pipe smoking were "permitted in the lounge of DC-6Bs only!"
Airlines provided junior pilot wings link these to children, just one of the amenities for families.
Airlines provided junior stewardess wings like these to children, just one of the amenities for families.
United Air Lines menu for a gourmet in flight meal.
Jet Lag Before Jets
Passengers began experiencing physiological problems due to crossing several time zones within a few hours. Shortened or lengthened days or nights upset natural body rhythms and made sleeping difficult. Although later dubbed "jet lag," this was first experienced after long-distance trips on fast piston-engine and turboprop airliners.
As flying became more popular and commonplace, the nature of the air travel experience began to change. By the end of the 1950s, America's airlines were bringing a new level of speed, comfort, and efficiency to the traveling public. However, with the steady increase in passenger traffic, the level of personal service decreased. The stresses of air travel began to replace the thrill. Flying was no longer a novelty or an adventure; it was becoming a necessity.
Jet passenger service began in the United States in the late 1950s with the introduction of Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 airliners.
The jet engine revolutionized air travel. Powerful and durable, jets enabled aircraft manufacturers to build bigger, faster, and more productive airliners. The effects of deregulation, along with the computer revolution and heightened security measures, especially following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have profoundly changed the nature of the air travel experience.
"Jetting" across the Atlantic briefly became highly fashionable and prestigious, and a new breed of travelers— the "Jet Set"— emerged. But falling fares in the 1970s allowed many more people to fly and undermined the exclusivity of jet travel.
Sweeping cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s reshaped the airline industry. More people began to fly, and air travel became less exclusive. Between 1955 and 1972, passenger numbers more than quadrupled. By 1972 almost half of all Americans had flown, although most passengers were still business travelers. A small percentage became repeat travelers, or "frequent flyers."
Today, airline travel is the safest form of transportation. More people die in auto accidents in three months in the United States than have lost their lives in the entire history of commercial flight. It is far safer to fly than it is to get to the airport.
Because air travel is so safe and accidents so rare, when an incident occurs it is often highly publicized, which heightens the unwarranted perception of danger.
Since the advent of high-altitude pressurized airliners in the early 1940s, airliners have featured oxygen masks such as this one, as well as evacuation slides and rafts to aid passengers and crew in emergencies.
Since deregulation, travelers have benefited from low fares and more frequent service on heavily traveled routes; on other routes, fares have risen. But in exchange for low fares, passengers have had to sacrifice convenience and amenities. To offer low air fares, airlines have had to cut costs in other ways, often by reducing, eliminating, or charging for amenities that air travelers once took for granted.
Computer technology, in particular the Internet, has revolutionized how people plan trips, buy tickets, and obtain boarding passes. Heightened security, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has made the airport experience more restrictive and time-consuming.
Hundreds of millions of passengers now fly each year in the United States. But that popularity has also brought crowded airplanes and congested airports and has dulled the luster air travel once had.