Our multi-stop trip through each decade of the aviation industry is approaching its next stop. Now that we’ve lovingly reflected back upon the groundbreaking 1930s, the explosive 1940s, the golden 1950s, the swinging 1960s and the positively intoxicated 1970s of the commercial airline industry, let’s touch down once more in an age where celebrities flew on a dedicated airline and in-flight service made a questionable detour. This is what it was like to fly in the 1980s.
“Standby…for the most extraordinary chain of events ever swept up in to high adventure!” The decade in aviation lifted off with an uproarious satire of the magic of flying that skewered the various industry tropes that had begun popping up in movies and television. The slapstick comedy gave the definitive take on the in-flight medical emergency, the paradox of the smoking section, and the chatty passenger seated next to you. The film was an elaborate exaggeration of the travails of air travel that is remembered as one of the best comedies of all time. And as such, it is impossible to talk about air travel in the ’80s, or any time, without also mentioning Airplane!
Physics-defying smoking sections
After decades of permissible smoking aboard flights, airlines finally began to wise up to the fact that not every passenger wished to emerge from their cross-country flight reeking of tobacco. And thus, the illusion of a non-smoking option was born in the form of the cabin’s non-smoking and smoking sections. And while airlines could instruct passengers to sit in the designated areas, the laws of physics unfortunately prevented any ability to also instruct the smoke itself to remain in its proper vicinity.
Smoking was a controversial subject in the ’80s, leading to both an industry-wide ban and subsequent unbanning of in-flight smoking in 1984 alone. President of the FAA-precedingCivil Aeronautics Board Dan McKinnon said of the quick policy reversal, “Philosophically, I think nonsmokers have rights, but it comes into market conflict with practicalities and the realities of life.” Such a frank remark about industry influence on something so widely understood now to be a health hazard is difficult to imagine in today’s instantly sharable, social media-saturated world.
In-flight tours of the flight deck
For thousands of ’80s babies — myself included — a first flight aboard a commercial airplane wasn’t complete until a flight attendant whisked you up front to the cockpit for an introduction to the captain and a tour of the buzzing and whirring machinery. Inviting children, or people at all, into the area of the plane from which the pilot was actively controlling the aircraft sounds like something out of a fantasy novel in our post-9/11 world, and yet thousands of grateful fliers share memories of the experience. Thankfully, pilots or flight attendants would routinely pin commemorative wings upon kids to mark their trip up front, proving that the practice wasn’t just some fever dream we all collectively imagined.
Modern day pro-tip: Many airlines still offer wings for children on their first flights. Ask your FA if any are tucked away onboard somewhere.
Dedicated airlines for the people … and the very important people
Each of the decades prior had airlines synonymous with their respective eras. TWA and Pan Am are practically synonymous with the 1950s, Aeroflot was ascendant in the ’60s, and the so-called “route of the aristocrats”, Southern Airways practically screams‘70s. A pair of airlines kept up the tradition in the ’80s, but via entirely different business plans.
People Express was the dominant low-cost carrier of the decade, albeit one fondly remembered for a welcome twist on the LCC business model that we’ve come to expect today. People Express paired their ultra-low prices with phenomenal first-class customer service that people still rave about to this very day. Talk about making a lasting impression!
At the other end of the price spectrum, but no less synonymous with the over-the-top ’80s,MGM Grand Air built a fan-favorite airline essentially around a single route between Los Angeles and New York. Billionaire playboy Kirk Kerkorian purchased a small, six-plane fleet in the mid-’80s, and gutted their 110 seat cabins, before retrofitting them with just 33 ultra-posh loungers. A-list celebrities and studio executives instantly flocked to the new airline. Madonna, Diana Ross, Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Julia Roberts andRobert De Niro were frequently spotted indulging in silver trays of caviar aboard what became the most exclusive nightclub in the world — even on the morning flights.
While neither airline ultimately survived the spate of mergers, acquisitions and bankruptciesthat pared the airline industry down to the handful of remaining players that exist today, both People Express and MGM Grand Air left a lasting impression on the industry.
Delays before the age of transparency
Without cellphones, there was no cellphone waiting area. And that was the least of the infrastructural absences that today’s travelers might find difficult to maneuver. No cellphones also meant no flight-tracking apps. Expectant family and friends would simply show up to the airport at the posted time of arrival. And if the plane wasn’t there — well then it simply wasn’t there, and thus the potentially hours-long waiting game began.
Security? What security?
Amidst the modern age’s labyrinthine airport check-in process, it can be difficult to even imagine a time when most of today’s airport security apparatus didn’t exist. In the 1980s, not only were passengers relatively free to roam about the airport after briefly passing through a metal detector — with their shoes on — but family and friends were welcome to join departing passengers all the way up to the departure gate. Likewise, many a weary traveler was greeted the second they stepped off the plane by adoring loved ones, who were permitted to walk all the way through the airport without a ticket to make a proper welcome. The specter of threatening liquids, body scanner radiation and underwear bombs was still more than a decade away.
While we may rue the devolution of in-flight meals, seat pitch, and loss of airline options when booking, the starkest contrast between flying in the 1980s and today is without a doubt the loss of airport innocence that we unfortunately experienced following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.