From Ashtrays to Wi-Fi: How Air Travel’s So-Called Golden Age Morphed into Today’s Sky Journeys

American Airlines produced a film to promote travel by air in 1933. They promoted core selling propositions of the airline — to save time and money and experience comfort.

This is from the year before the carrier changed its name to American Airlines. There’s no question that the aircraft and procedures have advanced markedly since then. And some of the features the airline promotes are.. dated like, “Individual ash trays as you blow smoke rings and thrill to the beauty of the vanishing vistas below.” Then there are the values and goals they promoted. Some highlights.

    The American Airways Way… a friendly kind of service, service with a smile

    American Airways limousines take you straight to the airport

    You’ll never know the meaning of travel comfort and convenience and economy until you’ve taken a trip on one of these modern airliners

    Is this an airplane? Why it looks just like a living room! And that’s just what it is a cozy and inviting living room with wings.

    All American Airways planes are cheerfully and tastefully decorated. No expense has been spared to provide a luxury travel service that is today the standard of the world.

    You sink down into soft roomy seats that are built for comfort. The stewardess will adjust them to suit you. All seats are first class seats, all passengers are first class passengers.

    If it’s a bit cool the stewardess will turn the heat on. If it’s too warm she’ll open up the ventilator to let in the cool fresh air..

    Is it any wonder American Airways planes have become famous for delicious food?

It was interesting to see American describe its interiors as like a “living room with wings” 91 years ago since 6 years ago American promoted its new domestic interiors, without seat back video but offering streaming to your own device, as recreating the ‘living room experience’.

There were low lights to the video as well, speaking to how society has changed in 90 years.

  • “You’ll want to linger in Memphis if you like the picture of darkies loading cotton.” (omg)

  • Referring to a father as “our fat friend”

During the pandemic, then-American Airlines CEO Doug Parker noted that the passengers they were carrying were ‘somewhat different from our normal clientele.’ I described the phenomenon of pandemic-era leisure travelers and no business travel as “all airline passengers are Spirit Airlines passengers now.”

In contrast, in 1933, few could afford to fly. American declared, “All seats are first class seats, all passengers first class passengers.” Back then “One of the grandest voyages imaginable is this trip from Chicago to New York.”

Unquestionably air travel is more affordable and accessible than ever before. This video is aimed at business travelers and celebrities, not families.

And travel is better today. It’s safer and faster transportation. And in many ways it is more comfortable. The limitations of service at the time are highlighted by the marketing point that “you’ll find cool drinking water constantly on tap.” (Then again recall that US Airways sought to charge for water.)

Working for an airline was very different, too! Being a pilot is prestigious and well-paying. Back then being the co-pilot? Not so much. The following is an excerpt of a letter sent to all American Airlines (née American Airways) co-pilots in 1930 (.pdf):

This letter – and do read the whole thing – appears to be authentic. Jerry Marshall, the signer, was indeed the airline’s Operations Manager in 1930. Much has changed in the airline industry over the past 94 years.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. When I heard that sentence before I finished reading the post, I thought they said “dockies”, meaning dockworkers, but your interpretation may be correct.

  2. Well, at least some things haven’t changed, like American’s views on black men.

  3. @O’Hare Is My Second Home says:

    Vote for Trump! Its the only way out of the slavery that Biden has placed you in!

  4. In 1933, American Airlines did not have a greedy CEO like Robert Isom who in 2023 received a pay increase resulting in a staggering $31,400,000.00, which, according to the Association of Professional Flight Attendants includes:

    base salary, bonuses, and stock awards.
    multiple incentives to retain top talent.
    performance-based metrics of the front line workforce like completion factor and on-time departures.
    confirmed flight privileges in any cabin.
    legal fees for negotiating his compensation.
    401(k) contributions, and more.

    The American Airlines board of directors offers high CEO compensation since flight attendants have yet to receive a pay increase during the last five years. You should know that American Airlines does not pay their flight attendants for their work boarding passengers on or off American Airlines flights.

  5. And we suckers in the ponzi scheme end up with
    500k one way biz class tickets to Europe Australia etc
    Thanks to their 32 mil salaries with perks (sigh from a Lifetime Lowly Plat peon)

  6. Not much has changed. They likely didn’t have seat back entertainment in 1930 either.

  7. Gary have you ever found out what a ticket cost back then and converted it in inflation adjusted dollars to today?
    It would be fascinating to find out!

  8. One thing that has changed for the better is the safety of flying has improved quite a bit.

  9. Some positives, some negatives like any other comparison of two different times. Read “Fate is the Hunter” for a look by a pilot at what commercial flying was like in the 1930s. Yes, it wasn’t as safe by any means, and the lack of Crew Resource Management is staggering (though I certainly don’t mind not having 90% of what the TSA does). But it just sounds like a heck of a lot more fun.

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