The Golden Age of Aviation is Now.
Every time someone refers to commercial aviation in the past using the phrase “the golden age”, it makes me cringe. There is no question that flying is better in almost every conceivable way today — and with few exceptions — this improvement is felt at all levels of society. Whether we are talking about safety, comfort, amenities, access, cost or food — todays airports, aircraft and airlines are miraculous. Take this from someone who flew millions of miles in the 70s, 80s and 90s — we’ve never had it so good…and here’s why.
From the very first attempts at human flight until the 2000s, taking to the skies has been a very dangerous proposition. I grew up in the industry and plane crash images from the news formed the backbone of my nightmares growing up. It seems insane by today’s standards, but in much of the 1980s there was nearly one commercial airline accident every week. Today’s kids will never have to face that stress because of how different the industry is now. Through concerted effort, there are now years without even a single fatality in North America and Europe, and if you exclude terrorism the odds of being injured on a plane today are effectively zero. To be sure, when incidents occur now they are pretty spectacularly weird (e.g. the disappearance of MH370 or the Asiana crash at SFO) — but this itself is a reflection of how rare these situations are now: simple crashes have been all but eliminated. I bet for most of you reading, air safety hasn’t really factored into your travel decisions in the last decade — this alone is a miraculous achievement in an industry so technically complex.
Although much is made of the reduction in comfort aloft, the reality is much different from our fantasies. To be sure, economy seating has become more compressed and seat pitch has declined with increased need for efficiency; but on many vectors things are much better than the past. First and foremost, smoking has been banned on most airlines. If you never flew during the smoking era, take it from someone who crossed the atlantic monthly growing up — it was a horror story. Even if airlines made us stand up during flight going forward — I’d still rather do that than be in an ashtray for 12 hours. But the reality is that economy seats themselves aren’t that much worse than they used to be, and increased ergonomics (and recline technology) have compensated somewhat for the loss of a few inches of legroom. Crucially, the design of in-flight seating has become much safer as seats have been reinforced, increasing survivability in minor incidents. Additionally, new technologies like those found in the 787, A350 and A380 are also greatly improving comfort by making cabins much quieter (ever flown at the back of a 727? Can you still hear anything?), lower altitude and higher humidity. Innovations like premium economy have also made it affordable for folks to get extra-extra legroom if they want, creating an environment not dramatically worse than the past.
But while you can argue that economy class has stayed roughly neutral, premium cabins are significantly better than ever. Today’s business and first class customers get seats (or suites) where flat beds and aisle access are the norm. Until the 2000s, most biz and first class seats were sofa-style recliners with cushy padding but no room to stretch or sleep. Now, premium seats cost upwards of 250K each, and airlines spend years and millions of dollars to perfect the working, sitting and sleeping position of their most valued guests. Today’s biz and first seating offer more personal space and true luxury than ever before, and you can arrive at your destination feeling relaxed and refreshed. There simply is no comparison.
Again, this is an area in which today just dusts the past. Whether its a shower in the sky aboard Emirates’ first class A380s, the fully enclosed suites on Singapore Airlines or the beautiful duvets, pyjamas, slippers and toiletries on Cathay Pacific, it’s clear that premium airline amenities are off the charts. But even those in the back of the bus benefit from major improvements in aviation today. Until the 2000s, on-demand entertainment on aircraft didn’t exist — during much of the time leading up to that there was ONE movie to watch at a time, and you listened on vacuum headphones where nothing sounded good. If you were lucky, the airline had a few channels of constantly repeating audio. Even the first seatback entertainment was simply looped video channels on a tiny, 6" screen — but it seemed magical. Now, you can get thousands of songs, hundreds of TV shows and dozens of movies on every flight — either right at your seatback or streamed to your device. Moreover, in the US we now have tons of live TV, power and internet on almost every domestic and international flight, giving you access to an unimaginable world of information, entertainment and connectivity on demand. As the comedian Louis CK famously pointed out, folks are quick to forget how magical in-flight internet really is. No matter how slow it is, the improvement of the old way is mind-blowing, and nowadays there’s just no way you can be bored aloft.
Similarly airports have increased their offerings to entice travelers to stay, play, shop and eat. You may bemoan the “mall-ification” of most airports, but they are 1000 times more interesting today than in the 70s and 80s. Whether it’s huge duty free, high-street quality shops, movie theaters, massage/salons, kiddie playgrounds or airside transit hotels — these amenities make a layover so much more enjoyable. For premium travelers, an arms race in lounges has also transformed the landscape. Whole terminals are devoted to first and business class passengers with insane amenities like free body treatments, haircuts, dedicated passport control and private chauffeur transfers from one plane to the next. And of course, the food choices are astonishing. Those old airports were small, cramped and devoid of entertainment — today’s airfield is truly a magical alternative.
Likely, you’re reading this as one of the billions of people around the world who take to the skies every year. But it was not always thus: flying used to be reserved for the wealthiest members of society and things didn’t really change until all that recently. The price of an airline ticket has declined by 95% in real dollar terms over the last 50 years, propelled by a range of innovations — and this against the backdrop of wildly increasing fuel costs. More efficient aircraft, better software that improves scheduling and utilization, internet ticketing and distribution, self-service technologies, smarter seat design and the cruel pressure of competition have all made the airline business wickedly efficient. Moreover, as global trade has increased and airport scale along with it, the infrastructure to support aviation has transformed up to make everything cheaper, faster and easier. Even the idea of being able to take a train to the airport is a new exciting innovation, further simplifying access for travelers across the world. At a base level, this puts flying within reach of a huge percentage of humanity and the industry has responded with more choice than ever before.
Not only is it cheaper, but you can go places that were never even possible before. I’m not just talking about “closed cultures” like China or Eastern Europe chasing mass tourism; I also mean traversing actual distances that were previously unheard of. Today, hundreds of flights will depart — with tens of thousands of people aboard — and travel more than 5000 miles in a single, safe and entirely unremarkable shot. You can jump on a plane today in Dallas and get off in Sydney 17 hours later safe and sound (check out a map to see just how far this actually is). Places like South Africa, Brazil, Australasia and the Gulf are “easy” and trivial destinations today, but as little as 25 years ago were multi-stop, multi-day affairs. Heck, in the 1950s it was pretty tough to cross the US on a nonstop flight — now we do coast to coast well over a hundred times a day without stopping. This improved range, efficiency and globalization have also meant an explosion in the number of nonstop flights. Just check out all the places you can go from London’s Heathrow Airport nonstop; now imagine what your (great) grandparents might say if you showed them those options.
To be sure, one of the most frequent complaints about travel today is the food. As airlines cut costs savagely in the 2000s, short-haul catering in economy class was severely curtailed or eliminated, and many carriers also reduced options in premium cabins. The internet is littered with photos of disgusting contemporary airline meals and golden-hued pics of the olden days when sexy stewardesses carved Prime Rib in the aisle.
No one would argue that the “luxury” quotient of airline catering seems to have taken a dive — but was the food really better? I have lots of memories of disgusting coach meals in the 80s (rock-hard bread, inedible dessert, dry chicken, anyone?) and luxurious first class meals when we’d get upgrades. More or less, this situation is unchanged — food in first is pretty good, and food in coach is pretty bad. And while the loss of a free snack/meal is clearly a downgrade in amenities, the reduction in ticket price more than compensates. With all the money you’re saving, buy yourself a delicious meal at the spectacular new food courts in many airports — and enjoy places that have become culinary destinations in their own right.
On the overall plus side however, airline catering has become much more conscious of flavor and seasoning as the science of perception at altitude has advanced alongside improved on-board cooking technology. Today, many carriers offer fresh juices, espresso drinks, fresh warm breads and cookies that were never possible before. Smart caterers have replaced stuffy luxury dishes (beef wellington) with thoughtful items that travel better aloft (e.g. more fish, stews, soups). Some global carriers too — as they’ve reached prominence and scale — have smartly brought their home cuisine to the global stage. The mezze course on Turkish (25+ choices, enough for a whole meal!), the Ethiopian food on — natch — Ethiopian Airlines (More injera? Yes, please!) and the Japanese food (Ippudo ramen!) on ANA come to mind. If you want wellington and caviar, a wide range of carriers are happy to offer it (see Cathay, Singapore, Lufthansa in First) — but it’s not available in coach. And let’s not kid ourselves: it never was.
Sure, many aspects of the travel experience are nominally worse. The “security theater” we must all now endure as a lasting legacy of anti-Western terrorism is much more annoying than it was in the 1970s. In response, programs like TSA Pre-Check and airport investments in improved screening have had a positive effect and are now nearly on par with the experience of my childhood. There’s also no question that over-crowding in coach and in many facilities, coupled with longer overall journeys and a wider swath of traveler experience levels (and ages) has made people more irritable and prone to anger. Airlines, airports, governments and the weather also frequently conspire (unintentionally) to add misery to these experiences, further exacerbating frustration.
I have little doubt that the human body and mind were not designed to sit still in a confined space for 15+ hours at a time. But when you’re stuck in seat 44D on a tarmac delay, heading for your vacation in New Zealand aboard the safest, fastest machine ever made, with limitless entertainment and thoughtfully designed food, spare a thought to those travelers of the past. It wasn’t that long ago that getting down under took a day (or two), was fraught with serious peril and when — if — you finally arrived, you felt absolutely crushed. While you lovingly think back to those groovy TWA 747 lounges, picturing lithe women in short skirts serving you cocktails, be comforted by the fact that most of those flew for only a short period of time, everyone smoked everywhere, and if you really want an onboard lounge airlines like Emirates and Virgin are happy to oblige. And when the trip is all done and you’re home safely with your family beside you looking at your credit card statement — take a moment and consider the fact that you just traveled halfway around the world for less than what your parents paid to go coast-to-coast in your childhood. I bet that extra money buys a lot of delicious meals, and the safety of today’s aviation system lets you sleep better at night.
People have a tendency to romanticize the past. When it comes to commercial aviation, it’s the future that really sparkles. Today is the golden era of aviation, and IMHO the best is yet to come.