Celebrating 90 years since the world’s first scheduled flight
Article written by Glenys Roberts on MailOnline posted 24th July 2009
Ah, those were the days – when flying was first thought of and every traveller was treated to the sort of style you can now find only in a five-star hotel.
For the 90th anniversary of the world’s first scheduled commercial flight, an exhibition showing the history of flying is being held at the British Airways museum.
A little-known attraction at Heathrow Airport, it is stuffed full of the nostalgia of flying, including a Concorde nose cone, 300 staff uniforms and masses of photos showing how romantic air travel once was.
On track: This roomy 1930s cabin resembles a train carriage
Scheduled passenger air travel began in August 1919 when Air Transport and Travel, a predecessor to BA, launched the world’s first daily international scheduled air service between London and Paris.
The aircraft was a tiny single engined De Havilland biplane with room for just one passenger – plus a cargo of the day’s papers, Devon cream and grouse for the French market.
The fare cost £21 one-way, roughly £819 in today’s money, for which you can now get to Australia and back – and the flight took two-and-a-half hours.
Social climbing: Passengers enjoy the ambience of an open-plan bar in the 40s
But then you can spend more time than that today just checking in and hanging around the terminal.
In those days, the intrepid traveller could usually count on an adventure en route.
On one occasion, the pilot took two days to get to the French capital and had to make 33 forced landings because of the weather.
By the 1920s, British planes were flying as far afield as the Far East and Africa, and what a civilised experience it was.
Silver service: A roast with all the trimmings carved at your seat
Aboard the 65-seat Armstrong Whitworth Argosy, with its leather chairs, curtains and a picnic box full of drinks at the rear, the traveller felt completely at home.
One of the greatest luxuries was being able to wait for your flight next to the plane on the airfield, with deckchairs at your disposal. There were no crowds, no security checks.
the Thirties the 39-seat Short L17 was even more luxurious, with railway-style carriages and upholstered seats, often facing each other across fixed tables, along a wide aisle.
People played cards in the sky while enjoying a drink and a smoke.
For sheer glamour, nothing could beat the Handley Page HP42, whose passenger cabin had inlaid wooden furniture with country-house style upholstery.
Suits you: In the Fifies you could pass time with cards around a table
And on the Short S23 C Class flying boat, which flew between Britain and our African and Australian outposts, there was so much room to move around on the promenade deck that you could imagine yourself on a cruise, rather than in the air.
By the Forties, after the pioneer companies were nationalised to form the BOAC, things were looking more familiar as modern-style seating was introduced.
However, even in economy women dressed in their most fashionable clothes, even wearing Marlene Dietrich-style veiled hats.
As for the sleeper service aboard the long-range double-decker Boeing Stratocruiser, breakfast was served in bed with a proper pot of Chivers Olde English Marmalade and passengers changed into their finest nightgowns rather than today’s tracksuit.
Not exactly haute couture: BEA’s rather boxy uniforms in the 1960s
By the Fifties, glamour and luxury had become a selling point. The traveller expected a five-course meal with fine wines served by stewards in white coats and gloves even on short hops.
As a result, in 1952 British European Airways deliberately slowed the flights from Heathrow to Paris, so there would be time to eat lunch rather than today’s coffee and a sandwich.
Though the pace of travel hotted up in the Sixties, flying itself was still a relaxed experience.
Some stewardesses sported hippie-style floral print mini-dresses, but in first class, meals aboard the Hawker Siddeley Trident 2 included caviar and canapes, and on the Vickers VC10 they somehow managed to serve real roast beef off a trolley, carved on the spot.
Even in the 1970s, flying could be a joy. There was rarely any need to ask for an upgrade.
Regal: ‘Elizabethan Class’ luxury is proudly displayed in the BEA Airspeed Ambassador. . .
..while it was more cramped, if still civilised, in the Vickers Viking tourist class
Though the 747 introduced at the start of the decade held the passenger capacity record for many years, I remember travelling to Los Angeles when there were only three people on board in economy class.
You could walk round, watch a film as if you were in your own private screening room or stretch out flat over several seats.
How different from today’s air travel when, despite the improved safety record, the experience can be so stressful most people need a holiday just to get over the flight.