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The golden days of air travel: How glorious were they?

By Katia Hetter, CNN
May 26, 2012 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Before deregulation, airline travel was largely available only to the well-off
  • Now, people from all walks of life have experienced air travel
  • 9/11 took some of the joy out flying, and the economy has taken a toll, too
  • Inconsistent rules raise anxiety and hamper security, some experts say

Editor's note: The Traveler's Psyche is a five-week series focusing on travel scenarios that stir emotion. We're starting with frustration and will wind up on a happy note in June. Next week we'll take a closer look at airplane seats, air rage and the TSA.

(CNN) -- The crowds cheered as the pilots and flight attendants of Delta Flight 295 cut a ceremonial red ribbon before the television cameras.

Water cannons sprayed the first official flight out of Atlanta's new international terminal this month as the airplane headed toward the runway, bound for Tokyo, leaving behind airport guests to eat from an elegant buffet of Asian-themed hors d'oeuvres and drinks.

For a brief moment, the glory days of airline travel had returned to the world's busiest airport. On this day at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the pilots were handsome, the flight attendants lovely and handsome (and no doubt could save a life) and the food and drink plentiful.

High fashion: The man with 1,000 stewardess uniforms

It was reminiscent of the golden days of air travel portrayed in the television series "Mad Men" and "Pan Am," when travel was an upper-middle-class experience and people dressed up to fly. Even when air travel became affordable to the masses after Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, flight attendants still served full meals and baggage was included in the cost of a ticket.

No more. Even amid the celebratory atmosphere in Atlanta, it was clear that the impact of the September 11, 2001, attacks and the subsequent economic downturn are here to stay. Officers patrolled the halls with drug-sniffing dogs and armed police guarded the exits to the runway. Many travelers wore sweats and other loose, comfortable clothing to get through security.

85 years of airline meals

While many grumble for the "good old days" of airline travel, their nostalgia usually doesn't include the high prices, limited routes and cigarette smoke clinging to the air.

Travelers can still pay for the luxury of rubber chicken and checking two giant suitcases "for free" -- it's called first class. There's certainly no policy stopping travelers from dressing up, but how fun are Spanx and heels on your next flight?

Designer uniforms: Service with style

Here are some of the things we miss and why they went away.

Pomp and circumstance

Eva Brams remembers flying with Burt Lancaster in first class, eating caviar on the plane and dining on lobster in a gorgeous hotel in Puerto Rico before returning home.

That's because the Austrian-born Brams was a flight attendant for Pan American World Airlines when flying was a glamorous experience. Brams, a former ballet dancer who spoke English, French and German, wanted to travel and see the world before deciding if her American-born boyfriend was "the one." (She knew she'd have to leave the airline if she married him. That was company policy.)

"We met interesting people on the plane, and we always stayed in the most luxurious hotels when we weren't in New York," said Brams, who left the airline in 1971 when she married that boyfriend. (They live in Manhattan and have two grown children and grandchildren.) "We didn't have as many flights as they do now. When we went to Brazil, we stayed for a couple days before flying out again."

An airplane trip used to be an expensive and rare occasion, usually reserved for the upper-middle and upper classes, marked by dressing up and elegant service in flight. Aviation expert Janet Bednarek remembers her father flying for work two or three times per year in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it always seemed like a special occasion. When he returned, the whole family would drive to the airport to meet him at the gate.

All that elegance came at a price. Before the airline industry was deregulated, a U.S. government agency controlled pricing, routes and other aspects of airline travel. Once airlines could increase and change their routes, they started to compete more on price and discount airlines started to pop up.

High prices made travel exclusive. Bednarek, now an aviation history professor at the University of Dayton, didn't take her first flight until she was in college in the late 1970s. In 1960, U.S. airlines carried 62 million passengers on scheduled airline flights, according to a government data analysis by Airlines for America, an industry group. Fifty years later, U.S. airlines carried 720 million passengers. Now Bednarek is hard pressed to find a student in one of her classes who hasn't always flown.

Greeting family at the gate

In a pre-9/11 world, families and friends regularly walked their loved ones to the gate to say goodbye or picked them up at the gate to say hello. The test of a new relationship was often the airport drop-off: Would your sweetheart pick you up at the gate, baggage claim or curbside?

No longer. It's baggage claim or curbside for your love. In a post-9/11 world, airport security officials usually won't let anyone clear security without a boarding pass. With would-be terrorists inventing new ways to try to blow up planes, that's not likely to change.

However, it's not a complete ban. Travelers who need help, perhaps because of disability or small children, can sometimes still have a nonflying companion come to the gate with them. It's best to call the airline in advance to request that permission, although some airlines can issue special passes at the ticket counter.

Care-free packing

Travelers of a certain age can remember lugging overstuffed suitcases to the airport and talking airline workers into allowing suitcases over the weight limit onto the plane. Now most carriers are charging for baggage, and they made $3.4 billion last year on those fees, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. (Delta Air Lines topped the list at nearly $864 million.) Some, like Delta, will waive the fee if you have their frequent-flier credit card.

That has taught some travelers to pack light and wrestle for overhead bin space. If there isn't enough space, flight attendants will often gate-check your luggage. There are plenty of travelers like library assistant Courtney Pricer, 25, who simply pay the fee.

"I try to carry on the least possible amount of material because I find it to be a bigger hassle to go through security with it all than to just pay the money for a checked bag," says Pricer, a resident of San Clemente, California. "I try to just have a purse to take on the plane, albeit a really big purse. It usually just has my laptop or iPad, my wallet, my phone, the charger for my devices, and some snacks."

Food and comfort

Kathy Tucker, who often flew from San Francisco to visit family in Hawaii in the 1970s, remembers a 1975 Pan Am flight where the stewardesses set up a coach-section buffet table with fresh Hawaiian fruits and walked through the aisles pouring free glasses of champagne.

"The cute young man sitting next to me decided we could finish of a bottle all by ourselves, so we went up to the table and slyly managed to swipe an opened bottle and bring it back to our seats," said Tucker, a resident of Pacific Grove, California. "The stewardesses were so nice that they probably wouldn't have cared anyway."

Even after deregulation, when the champagne flowed less frequently, travelers used to be able to count on a decent meal (or snacks for shorter flights). Vegetarians and people who kept kosher could even request special meals. But as airlines cut costs, meals shrank down to snacks and then went away. Some flights still offer peanuts or pretzels in addition to food for sale. Other times there's nothing to eat at all. Even first-class passengers on shorter flights might only get a choice of fruit, chips or a cookie. (The alcohol is still free.) While some planes still carry blankets and pillows for passengers, there are fewer to go around.

"I try to pack as much food as I can but you can't bring water and sometimes I don't have time to pack," said Mira Patel, 22, a Baltimore-based first-year medical student who traveled a lot for medical school interviews. "I feel like I'm always hungry. With flights an hour apart, I can pay $7 for a can of Pringles or nuts that they used to give out for free. I'll go nine hours without eating."

Predictable security

In the pre-9/11 security days, people knew what to pack in their checked luggage and carry-on baggage (nearly anything, it seemed).

The evolution of airline passenger screening

Travel experts say people can adapt to tighter security requirements if the rules are clear and consistent. It's when officials enforce different requirements at different airports that travelers don't believe the new procedures contribute to more secure flights. Some security officials want you to carry your boarding pass through security; others want you to place it in the bin to be screened. Some don't like you to bring cupcakes or gun-shaped purses; others are OK with it.

"If people are anxious, it's harder to detect if they're anxious because they're up to no good or anxious because of all the attention you are paying to them," New York University professor Harvey Molotch said. "It makes the system less secure."

The lack of predictability is maddening to Michael Flaherty, an Eckerd College sociology professor who studies the passage of time.

"The fact that we don't know what to expect when we fly is irritating because it undermines our efforts to anticipate our experiences in the future and know how to behave," Flaherty said.

Travelers don't dare question security officials unless they're willing to risk not flying that day.

"It's threat rhetoric reminiscent of Orwell, all based on external threats," Flaherty said. "We have your interests at heart, this is what we have to ask you to do, and we're not going to explain it. If you don't cooperate, you become part of the problem."

For her part, the future Dr. Patel doesn't care to travel anymore. "I used to love traveling but I hate it," she said. "It's totally exhausting, and I feel like I'm paying so much money for so little. It feels like you're being herded through the airport like animals. I worry about what's in my bag. I feel like I'm always hungry. I would much rather drive."

Frustration is far from the only emotion travel inspires. We want to hear about your greatest travel moments, whether serendipitous or carefully planned. What sticks out to you as your biggest travel success? Share your stories below.

CNN's Jim Kavanagh contributed to this story.

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