Can business class create a new golden age?

At the dawn of the jet age, business travel was the preserve of high-flying executives – but just how glamorous was it and are airlines flying back to the future with retro style?


People sit around on wide armchairs in lounges, laughing, chatting and, invariably, smoking. The white-gloved, girdled stewardesses wear designer uniforms often more revealing than professional. Indeed, these hostesses might be mandated to be both single and slim. Meanwhile, the businessmen looking on – and it is almost all men flying – match the hip interior decor in their Don Draper Mad Men panache. And they called this working?

If they were flying Air France, for example, they will have eaten well too. They might have watched An American in Paris while tucking into, as the menu has it, “foie gras topped with truffle, a range of trout with tarragon, filet of sole, a roast and bombe glacée feuille d’automne”. The only time, for sure, that passengers have been pleased to know there is a “bombe” on board.

Welcome to commercial airline travel of the 1950s and the jet age of the 1960s. It was a supposed golden age, in the high style of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can or the 2012 mini-series Pan Am, an experience so rare that travellers would be handed a postcard on board so they could write home about just how amazing it all was.

And golden it must have seemed. Air travel for business or pleasure back then was glamorous and exotic, as staff recruitment posters underlined. “Marriage is fine! But shouldn’t you see the world first?” asked a 1967 United Airlines ad. And without laptops and today’s communications technology, the amount of work an executive could do on board was limited.

Flying for business in the golden age was most definitely an elite pursuit only available to what today we call C-suite

But it couldn’t last forever. Since the late-1970s, when the launch of the Boeing 747 “jumbo jet” opened international business travel to the masses, although many of the early aircraft still had piano bars, meal trays became standard. Then, in 1978, deregulation of the airline industry in the United States sparked a pricing war. Lower prices arguably meant lower standards. And if so many business passengers aren’t going to be treated well, why should they worry about how they behave or dress?

“Air travel today is now less of a privilege and, in modern society, more of a necessity. People travel for business more and accordingly prices have gone down dramatically,” says Martin Riecken, spokesman for Lufthansa.

The German airline is currently outfitting its first-class cabins with new interiors, as well as a pioneering air humidification and lighting system to help combat jet lag so business passengers can arrive refreshed and ready for work. “Say a flight today from Germany to the United States in a premium class is €2,000. Well, it was the same price in the golden age, only back then that amount would buy you a small car,” says Mr Riecken.

Business Traveller stats

Flying for business in the golden age was most definitely an elite pursuit only available to what today we call C-suite. A ticket in the 1950s was roughly 40 per cent more expensive than the same ticket today, but average salaries are higher today too: a round-trip ticket that would cost the average person today one per of their annual income would have cost five per cent back then.

And that’s not all: statistically the golden age was more dangerous too. Today for every 100,000 hours that planes are in the air, there are 1.33 fatalities, compared with 5.2 deaths in 1952, and this despite the fact that the number of passengers on US carriers alone has gone up 42 times in the last 60 years.

“The reality of modern life, the need for more security, for example, makes aspects of flying more process driven, but I think we look on the golden age through rose-tinted glasses,” says Abi Cromber, head of customer experience for British Airways.

“People hark back to the simplicity of life then, when everyone could take the time and care about their appearance when flying. Flying seemed to offer the space to relax and breath. But hands down, premium travel is better now than it was then in terms of comfort, food, the overall experience. Aircraft today are quieter, safer and faster too.”

Business bar on Airbus A380
The business-class bar on an Airbus A380 - reminiscent of a golden age

 

Certainly airlines are increasingly seeking to reproduce the best experiences of the golden age for business travellers. “There’s definitely some reference in what we do today to that golden time-frame,” says Bruno Delile, executive vice-president of long-haul operations for Air France.

UK travel spending

Last year the airline launched an ad campaign that was positively retro in its nod to golden-age graphics. “Our latest travel kit is very close to the ones we had on Concorde and people love it,” says Mr Delile. “Even the curtains that divide seating areas have that haute couture spirit of the 50s. Such details matter – there’s a lot of emotion linked with the golden age, and the fact is that competition is tough and in the current environment every customer wants the best value for money.”

Similarly, a recent ad for Emirates highlights just the kind of business travel experience that Mad Men has encouraged us to believe was the norm. It features a party-setting with a barman mixing cocktails – “Make Friends in High Places” is the tagline.

Such benefits are not uncommon at the top end of the market. BA’s Ms Cromber argues that digital technology in particular can be expected to allow for yet further improvements for those flying for business. In fact, a benefits arms race has long been in the making. Services introduced by Virgin Atlantic, the likes of in-seat entertainment as well as airport lounge spas and limo transfers – for the new “golden age” is not limited to the aircraft – have all become the industry norm.

“The fact is that now some people just want to get from A to B at the cheapest price. And for business travellers, who take a more rational approach, it’s less about that romantic idea of flying as the idea of buying time, wellbeing and assurances they’ll be taken care of,” says Lufthansa’s Mr Riecken. “But then there’s a growing group of customers who want to pay extra to be treated specially – to get that taste of the golden age.” Don Draper would raise a glass to that.