Imagine a time in which catching the red eye flight from New York to Los Angeles wasn’t a dreaded ordeal, but rather an exciting opportunity to get a taste of the lives of the world’s socioeconomic elite. The average individual today is unlikely to be particularly enthusiastic about air travel- it has become a routine exercise that lacks a sense of grandeur and adventure. However, this was not the case sixty years ago. At that time, when air travel was still relatively new and chic, airlines didn’t merely aim to get their passengers from one city to another- they sought to deliver a unique cultural experience. Early titans of the commercial air travel industry like Pan American World Airways aspired to be avant-garde and cosmopolitan, providing clients with lavish amenities in the svelte cabins of their aeroplanes. The emergence of air travel ushered in an era now known as the Golden Age of Aviation.
In the 1920s and 1930s- the span of years between the two world wars- air travel began to become a viable alternative to the older means of long distance transportation like ships and trains. There was a media frenzy over the air races and aviators that shattered records in terms of speed and distance. Governments around the world also saw the potential in aviation, and rushed to develop cutting-edge combat aircraft. World War I era biplanes constructed of wood and fabric were replaced by sleek new steel monoplanes. Pan-Am was one of the first commercial airlines to offer transatlantic flights in a high-class setting, and even flew the iconic Clipper flying boats. They offered passengers all of the amenities that they would find on a train or luxury ocean liner. The staff wore crisp blue formal uniforms and served fresh seven-course meals prepared by Parisian chefs, and even employed a sommelier to help the passengers pair a wine with their food. One of the most popular delicacies whipped up by Pan-Am’s chefs was a prime charcoal broiled steak. Meals were delivered to passengers in their seats on fine china plates with polished silver cutlery. Customer service was the highest priority, and the company sought to be synonymous with the word “hospitality”.
The Golden Age of Aviation continued after the end of World War II, although the majestic flying boats were made obsolete by conventional airliners. During the 1950’s, anticipation of jet-powered airplanes was growing, and the world eagerly awaited the arrival of a new and revolutionary type of aircraft that would drastically reduce the lengths of long-distance flights. While the planes flown by Pan-Am changed, they remained dedicated to their standards of hospitality and excellence. They were one of the original operators of the Boeing 707, which belonged to the first generation of commercial jetliners. Pan-Am’s first transatlantic jet flight from New York to Paris was successfully completed in October of 1958. Just over a decade later, Pan-Am became one of the original operators of the massive Boeing 747, which enabled them to serve even greater numbers of people on their flights.
Air travel changed the world and equipped society with a faster way to travel around the globe. The Golden Age of Aviation was an era like no other, and Pan-Am led the way into the brave new world. Eventually, the market expanded, other airlines eclipsed Pan-Am, and the once-great carrier faded into obscurity. The original company shut its doors in 1991 after nearly seven decades of business. While the airline itself ceased to exist, their enduring legacy lives on. Recently, Delta and American Airlines announced that they would begin serving full hot meals free of charge to all passengers on lengthier cross-country flights- this is the type of first-rate service and elegance that once made flying such a grand experience. Many modern airlines would greatly benefit from taking a leaf from Pan-Am’s book and making it a priority to return to these standards of elegance and hospitality, perhaps even paving the way for a second Golden Age of Aviation.