30 Rare Photographs of Historical Air Travel Will Put You on the Edge of Your Seat

The history of commercial aviation is just over one hundred years old, but it is a fascinating study of the changes that were happening in the twentieth century. After the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, the idea of commercial aviation became a possibility. Within twenty years, the first commercial airlines opened for business and planes were used for transportation as well as weapons in World War I. As the decades passed, the flight experience improved and became a luxury for those who could afford to travel by plane. The decadence of air travel began to wane by the 1980s, when the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 led to a drop in ticket prices, allowing more people from all economic and social classes to afford a ticket.

By the 1930s, after many of the first commercial flight businesses that tried to make a profit from air travelers failed the decade before, airlines began to realize that they needed to make their passengers more comfortable in the flying experience to keep them flying. As the technology of aircraft developed, so did the luxury of flying. Seats were able to recline, with much legroom, and some planes even had beds. Traveling by air was a luxury that not everyone could afford, and the people who could recognized its importance. People dressed nicely for their flights, and flying was considered a social event where you talked to the people around you. Eventually, the luxuries on board flights became more and more sophisticated, with flight attendants serving drinks and full-course meals. You could also smoke on airplanes, which was a practice that continued until the end of the twentieth century.

Many photographs from the beginning of commercial air travel survive, and they give us a glimpse into how air travel has changed since its beginnings. Pictures of air travel survived since the 1920s, and they show what flight was really like during what is called the “glory days of air travel” from the 1940s to the 1970s. As tickets opened up to everyone, you can see the decline in the quality of air travel: people began to dress more comfortably and the planes became more cramped to accommodate more people, reducing the legroom and space that earlier planes were known for. The photographs are also particularly interesting because, in the passengers as well as the flight attendants, you can see the differences in the fashion trends reflected in their clothing. These photographs show the change in airplane travel as luxury increased and they detail the development of air travel as an indication of social status.

The first commercial flight in the United States. Tony Jannus flew a flying boat across Tampa Bay from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Tampa, Florida, for Abram Pheil (left). The flight took 23 minutes. Photographed January 1, 1914. State Archives of Florida. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/commercial-flight-opens-unlimited-opportunities
People boarding a British European Airways Vickers Viking flight to Paris. Photographed ca. 1940-1949. British Airways. https://www.britishairways.com/en-us/information/about-ba/history-and-heritage/photographs/photos-1940-1949 
The Flying Senators, at Bolling Field, Washington, before a flight to Langley Field, Virginia. Senator Frederick Hale of Maine and Senator Hiram Bingham (right) of Connecticut frequently used air travel to conduct government business. Senator Bingham was a pilot in World War I. Photographed by Harris & Ewing, November 27, 1927. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
Weighing in. This postcard from the 1920s shows a woman weighing in before a flight. The first flights were meticulously weighed and measured so that the plane was not too heavy. George Arents Collection. The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-1896-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Unnamed steward in the cabin of an Imperial Airways Armstrong Whitworth Argosy aircraft, ca. 1920s. In the early days of air travel, stewards were introduced to serve drinks and food on flights. Women were barred from these positions until a decade later. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/8206079.stm
A flight attendant serves drinks to passengers on board a flight. Photographed around 1931. Copyright Alarmy Stock Photos. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3349248/Shaking-cocktail-tucking-passengers-bed-calming-nervous-flyers-Fascinating-vintage-photos-reveal-life-sky-air-hostesses-1930-s.html#ixzz4yu7gw3VD
Passengers pass the time on a flight. The first flights until 1940 could only fly up to 10,000 feet because the technology had not reached the ability to handle the higher altitudes and lower oxygen levels. On July 8, 1940, the first Boeing 307 Stratoliner changed this; it was able to travel 200 mph and could reach altitudes of 20,000 feet. State Library and Archives of Florida. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/commercial-flight-opens-unlimited-opportunities
Ellen Church, the first female flight attendant, welcomes a passenger to a Boeing flight. The 1930s changed flight forever with the presence of female flight attendants. Women were previously banned from these jobs, but the operations manager of Boeing Air Transport began to hire the first women flight attendants, believing that having women on board the planes would calm the passengers. Photographed in 1930. Copyright by ullstein bild at Getty Images. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3349248/Shaking-cocktail-tucking-passengers-bed-calming-nervous-flyers-Fascinating-vintage-photos-reveal-life-sky-air-hostesses-1930-s.html#ixzz4yu8OGPZX
March 1937. A sleeping area on an Imperial Airways airplane. Copyright by Getty Images. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/15/air-travel-1950s_n_5461411.html?slideshow=true
The interior of an United Airlines Boeing plane, one of the first commercial airplanes. The aisles are very narrow and there is limited seating. Photographed 1935. Copyright Alarmy Stock Photos. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3349248/Shaking-cocktail-tucking-passengers-bed-calming-nervous-flyers-Fascinating-vintage-photos-reveal-life-sky-air-hostesses-1930-s.html#ixzz4yu9IcoLf
A couple in a private suite of an airplane. Photographed in the 1940s. Copyright Pictorial Parade, Archive Photos, Getty Images. https://www.thedailybeast.com/vintage-photos-of-airplane-travel-and-celebrities
Relaxing during a flight. A woman reclines back in her seat of a BOAC Boeing Stratocruiser while chatting with her fellow passengers. Unknown date, probably ca. 1940s. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2340919/Golden-age-air-travel-pictures-shots-tents-Heathrow-wasnt-glamour.html
Flight attendant Patricia Palley serves passengers in a cabin on a transatlantic Pan-American flight. Photographed December 23, 1946. Copyright by Getty Images. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/15/air-travel-1950s_n_5461411.html?slideshow=true
Children on fold-out beds on a transatlantic flight as a flight attendant serves them breakfast in bed. Airplanes used to have seats that folded out into beds. Photographed in 1948. Copyright by Bettmann/Corbis. https://www.thedailybeast.com/vintage-photos-of-airplane-travel-and-celebrities
Flight attendant Claire Swan in training on a BOAC mock airplane. Photographed January 19, 1950. Copyright by Getty Images. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/15/air-travel-1950s_n_5461411.html?slideshow=true