Posted by Crystal Lewis Brown

A Century of Air Travel Shows it's Actually a Modern Miracle

I’m sitting on a flight – 25,000 feet in the air – with a small packet of pretzels in my hand lamenting my decision not to accept the flight attendant’s offer of a cold drink or coffee. I’m in a middle seat; the result of my late flight check-in, I’m sure. And I’m having typical middle-seat-passenger anxiety: Am I taking up one too many armrests? Should I interrupt my neighbor to slip by and use the restroom, or can I wait until we land? And how will I ever take off my jacket without hitting someone in the face with it?

Of course, the trivialness of my thoughts gives way to a thought I have every single time I fly. Who in the world thought it was a good idea to get into a steel tube and use it as a form of transportation? And who were the guinea pigs that somehow let the people who decided that flying an airplane was an actual, viable thing, convince them to get into such a contraption? I was 25 years old when I took my first flight. My connection put me on a prop plane that took me from Florida to a town in Oklahoma that has the smallest airport I’ve ever seen. I was nervous about flying in that. So how had Orville and Wilbur Wright talked themselves into hopping into that fix-winged airplane they created in 1904?

The Boeing Company

Wilbur Wright, testing a glider, is seen shortly after landing.

Even as the technology improved, people back then weren’t taking flights to business meetings and visits to grandma. Airplanes were used mostly by the military in the early days. In 1918, the government decided there was another important reason to use airplanes – to deliver mail. It was years later before airplanes were regularly used for commercial travel.

These days, that’s hard to imagine. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, more than 2.5 million passengers fly domestically and internationally every day.  At any given time, there are 5,000 planes in the air. Even more astonishingly, there are nearly 20,000 airports in the United States. Perhaps only the visionary Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, could imagine that air travel would become what it is today.

“What we need now to develop our aviation is a series of airports in every town and city in the country,” he once said.

When the Boeing Model 80 was introduced in 1928, it was nothing short of revolutionary. The plane sat just 12 people, compared to today with airplanes that can hold more than 800.  But flying was a luxury then; imagine every single seat on every flight is first class. The “Golden Age” of flying -- the 1950s and ‘60s -- was much more glamorous than what we’re used to today. Passengers wore their finest clothes to fly; today’s standby of leggings, sweatpants and flip flops would have been a definite no-no. The drinks flowed freely, and it was common to light up a cigar or cigarette during your flight.

The Boeing Company

Passengers wait to board a Boeing Model 80A flown by United Air Lines.

Of course, there were downsides, too. Flights were more dangerous, much longer and more expensive. For example, the first commercial flight in 1914 lasted 23 minutes and cost $400. And a flight from Los Angeles to Kansas City in 1955 took five hours and cost $68, which sounds like a bargain until you adjust for inflation. The cost today would be about $625, and the flight would take about three hours.

Considering the advances that have been made in aviation so far, it’s exciting to imagine what lies on the horizon. Whatever it is, I’m sure we’ll be like those first airplane passengers. A little nervous, a little excited but completely ready to see where it takes us.

Lindbergh once said, “Possibly everyone would fly in another 50 years. I’m not sure I like the idea of millions of planes flying around overhead.”

His vision has already partly been realized. Who knows what another 50 years will bring.