5 Ways In-Flight Services Have Changed Through the Years

–Philip J Reed, on behalf of Redstone College

In-flight ‘service’:  perhaps the one thing that springs instantly to mind whenever anybody thinks about air travel.

Whether positive or negative, we’ve all had our experiences with it, and we all have our opinions about it. Of course, what we think about in-flight service is shaped by our experience, and any given traveler has really only seen a small representation of what in-flight service has embodied over the years.

For that reason, we thought it would be fun to take a look back at what in-flight services represented in the past, and compare them to what we know today.  And who knows?  It just might give us a little more insight into the future as well.  So here are five ways in-flight services have changed through the years.

1)  Timing
Would you believe in-flight meals didn’t actually used to happen in flight?  It’s true!  According to Bob Van Der Linden of the National Air and Space Museum, “Airplanes were small, they were uncomfortable and you got bounced around the sky.  So, airsickness was a problem and people really weren’t all that eager to eat.”

He’s referring to the early 1930s, when aircrafts were primitive when compared to what we have today, and the actual flight experience was neither as smooth nor as enjoyable.  This was about 40 years before avionics programs really came into their own, and offered us a more stable, safe and secure ride, wherever we were going.

Because nobody was really thinking about food under conditions like that, passengers were served their meals when the plane landed for refueling.  And what did the meals consist of?  According to Van Der Linden, “Usually they were box lunches, lotta fried chicken.  […]  They also handed out free cigarettes.”

We’ve come a long way, baby.

2)  From Necessity to Luxury
Once in-flight services started occurring when the plane was actually in flight, those services existed mainly to make up for the relative discomfort of early air travel.  Sybil Peacock Harmon was one of Delta Airlines’ very first flight attendants in the 1940s, and she remembers catering to people’s needs more than their desires.

“One of our duties was to pass out the chewing gum because planes then weren’t pressurized and it helped passengers swallow so they would not have problems with their ears.”  She also remembers being in charge of passengers who became airsick, which was far more common in those days of uneasy flights.  “The airsickness container in those days was a quart ice cream container and it fit in a little round ring under the seat, so you wanted to get that out in plenty of time.”

She recalls those early days with a sense of darkness.  “This was the beginning, really, of people flying.  An emergency would come up, somebody would be sick or somebody would die.” As an air hostess in those days, Harmon and her colleagues literally worked to keep their passengers from sickness and death.  It’s a far cry from today, when we assume those two things will be the least of our worries as we unwind with airline-supplied music, films, and video games!

3)  The Food
Mention in-flight service, and the first thing almost anybody will think of is food.  What specific food they’ll think of, though, may vary depending upon which airlines they’ve flown with.  It may also vary depending upon when they last took to the skies!

As mentioned, the earliest flights did not serve food in the air, and unless they needed to touch down for refueling, no food was served at all.  Unfortunately this was leading to a lot of dissatisfied customers who often emerged from the planes feeling ill and exhausted.

The late 1930s saw the first serious attempts at serving food in flight, which was an attempt to win back all the early airline customers who had probably sworn off air travel already by that point.  Most notably it was American Airlines who wanted to make sure people noticed, so they employed full wait staffs, constructed elaborate galleys, and showered their customers with food prepared by celebrated hotels and restaurants.  As if that weren’t enough, they ate off of linen-lined tables, their food was served on fine china, and they drank out of crystal goblets.

Sounds great, right?  Well, being as the cabins at that point were still unpressurized and without access to electricity, the food was impossible to keep at the necessary temperatures, and even meals as simple as salads froze before they could be properly served up, let alone consumed.
Oh well.  At least their intentions were good!

4)  Cost of Services
Most of us still remember when airline food was free.  Its quality has always been debatable, but it is difficult not to appreciate the offer of a complimentary meal.  By and large this is no longer the case, particularly with less expensive seats.

This is a symptom of the “a la carte” ticketing strategy.  In recent years, ticket prices have come to be considered a “base price,” entirely limited to the flight itself.  Anything additional, be it food, a drink, headphones or other add-ons, are an additional charge to be paid during the course of the trip.

The popularity of a la carte ticketing is debatable, but it’s certainly becoming the norm.

Many see this as a response to the arguably over-generous in-flight services of the 1970s, which saw carriers such as Pan Am offering extravagant buffets for flyers, lounges and bars to accommodate the more “social” fliers, and even live piano music.  Airline commercials advertised the enormous platters of hors d’oeuvres that flight attendants would carry around for passengers, and enormous cuts of brisket that would be wheeled around on carts and offered, gratis, to even the lowest class travelers.

It’s not difficult to see why this particular level of in-flight service was unsustainable, but it’s also a matter of debate quite how far the complimentary services needed to be rolled back.

5)  9/11 Onward
To say that 9/11 changed the face of air travel is an understatement.  Every traveler knows how the experience of flying has changed, from security to carry-on restrictions to acceptable wardrobe and demeanor.  But the tragedy of 9/11 also affected air travel in less obvious ways.

As Guillaume de Syon, aviation historian, put it, “Airlines had to cut back their capacity considerably in the wake of 9/11.  The tragedy became also a means to actually re-evaluate all the amenities that they were serving.”

The rising cost of fuel, the faltering economy and the growing cost of doing business in general have all contributed to the desire of airlines to scale back their services, or to charge larger fees for them.  With 9/11 an immediate and comprehensive overhaul of the industry was paramount, and during that process, in-flight services were reevaluated as well.

Even so, travelers find it difficult to shake the feeling that something’s missing.  As de Syon said, “There’s a paradox the airlines ignore.  […]  When we get on board, we come to expect those silly peanuts or pretzels.”

There’s no way of knowing for sure where in-flight services will take us in the future.  We might return to the lavish 1970s, or the barebones necessities of the 1930s.  More likely though, we’ll be somewhere in between.  It’s just a question of where, and how much it will cost us.