Airline Decline: Not So Friendly Skies

The once-luxurious world of air travel becomes mass transit.

ByYUNJI de NIES and TAYLOR BEHRENDT via via logo
February 14, 2010, 12:50 AM

Feb. 14, 2010— -- When it comes to air travel, no matter where you look, the story is the same: With constant delays, oversold flights, hidden fees and stuck-on-the-tarmac horror stories, flying is just not fun.

But it was not always like this. There really were good, old days.

Anne Sweeney was a Pan American World Airways flight attendant in the airline's heyday, starting in 1964. In her crisp "Pan Am blue" uniform, gloves and matching hat, Sweeney's entire job was focused on keeping customers comfortable.

"People were given pillows, blankets, magazines, playing cards, pens and a hot meal, wine, top-shelf liquor -- and that was just in economy," Sweeney said.

Sweeney and her fellow flight attendants prepared warm meals for all passengers. Those in first class were often served seven-course meals that began with caviar and French champagne.

The airline was strict about how the flight attendants dressed, the length of their hair, and their body weight. It went as far as to regulate their make-up: All women were required to wear the same shade of pink Revlon lipstick. The groups of fashionably dressed women walking together made quite a splash, especially overseas.

"It was very glamorous when you walked into an airport with your hat on and your gloves on, and your shined shoes, and your pretty uniform. And it was very gratifying to know that you were somebody special," Sweeney said.

And the passengers also looked the part.

"Flying was an occasion and people dressed up," she said, recalling that men wore suits and women wore dresses and fine jewelry. "They really were excited about it. It wasn't a chore. "

Airline Decline: Prices Down, Satisfaction Too

These days, sweat pants and flip flops are the norm in most terminals. But the changes in air travel are not all bad. Thanks to deregulation, ticket prices have gone down, making it much more affordable. Unfortunately, that means planes are a lot more crowded.

While the prices may be lower, airlines are padding their bottom lines with fees on things like bags, food and even legroom. Passengers hoping to catch a nap may need to BYOB, as in "bring your own blanket." In May, American Airlines will begin charging $8 for blankets and pillows.

"Air travel is a lot like mass transit trains," said Daniel Rust, author of "Flying Across America." "Go back 100 years ago. The whole country ran on the schedule of trains and today ... for long-distance travel, the airlines are mass transit between cities."

The irony perhaps, is that traditional mass transit is now trending the other way. Trains are getting sleeker and more buses are going high-tech with entertainment systems and wireless Internet access.

Anne Sweeney misses the days when flying was a luxurious experience. She still stays in touch with many of the flight attendants that she worked with through World Wings International, a philanthropic organization made up of former Pan Am flight attendants.

The group has raised more than $3 million for charity since its inception 50 years ago and meets every year for an international convention. There, they raise money for worthy causes around the world and reminisce about those good old days of air travel that have sadly flown by.

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