Why the golden age of flying is never coming back — and it might not be a bad thing
From pricey parking to pat downs at security and long lineups everywhere you turn, air travel these days can be unpleasant.
"I get on a plane now at least once a month and to me, it's like riding on a bus in the sky. Herd me on, sit me down, get me off. They've taken away the lure of the travel," said Susan Barnes, 75, of Halfmoon Bay, B.C., who has been a frequent flyer for more than half a century.
Barnes, who was a flight attendant in the 1960s and '70s, says she remembers when flying was like a Mad Men cocktail party in the sky. She jetted around the globe pouring free champagne for passengers flying CP Air, a carrier that operated until 1986 when it was taken over by Pacific Western Airlines (PWA) and then, Canadian Airlines.
Barnes said her job was to provide top notch treatment to every passenger, even those sitting in economy. That meant handing out hot towels before and after every meal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served on real china, with silverware and cloth napkins — then out came coffee, tea and a fruit basket.
"We were treating these people as if they were in a first-class establishment. We just happened to be in the air," Barnes said.
Barnes and other retired CP Air, Canadian and Air Canada flight attendants interviewed by the Cost of Living described flying back then as "a pleasure."
It's a far cry from the experience thousands of Canadians had with airlines this past holiday season. Staff shortages, weather issues and computer outages resulted in lost baggage, cancelled flights and stranded passengers who are now battling air carriers for compensation.
This, along with a summer of major travel disruptions due to COVID-19 labour shortages, has the federal government promising to overhaul Canada's airline passenger bill of rights.
If you've been caught in that tangled web of travel chaos, you may be asking yourself what happened. Experts say it comes down to costs, and competition — and that we're unlikely to ever return to that golden age of flying.
Keeping prices competitive meant airlines had to be more ruthless about the bottom line, said Fred Lazar, an associate professor of economics at York University.
"Here's a fare, it gets you a seat from A to B. Anything else costs more."
What most Canadians remember as the golden age of flying was the era when commercial aviation was regulated, explained Lazar. It was a time when airlines didn't have to cut costs to stay competitive, because the federal government didn't allow them to compete with one another.
"So it was essentially the government saying this is where you can fly, when you can fly and these are the prices."
Up until 1986, the two big players were private carrier CP Air and government-owned Air Canada (formerly Trans-Canada Airlines), said Lazar, and the government did not allow much overlap on routes.
In the absence of competition, experts say Canadian carriers were guaranteed to attract customers and make money, which meant they could afford to offer perks on their flights to passengers.
According to Julie LeBlond Parker, who started as a flight attendant for CP Air in 1968, airlines also invested in their staff. She received extensive training in "decorum" and "finesse" before taking to the sky.
"The service was based on old European service. It was a very high standard," said LeBlond Parker, who now lives in South Surrey, B.C.
Domestic and international flight prices, 1959 vs. 2023
But the golden age of air travel was also out of reach for many Canadians. Fare schedules from collectors and the archives of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum reveal that throughout the 1940s, '50s and '60s, flying was incredibly expensive.
In 1950, a return flight on Trans-Canada Airlines from Vancouver to Johannesburg, South Africa, cost over $21,000 when adjusted for inflation. Flying Toronto to Vancouver in 1962 on CP Air was roughly $1,900.
With prices like that, LeBlond Parker, said the regulars on her flights were business travellers, not vacationers. Leisure travellers were usually newlyweds, couples and families embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
"What was really amazing about it is that they all dressed up. They probably got a new outfit just to fly because it was special. It was a very special thing."
Goodbye blankets, hello bargains
Barry Prentice, the director of the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba, said Canadians saw a "tremendous drop" in airfares south of the border when the U.S. deregulated its airlines in 1978.
"They went from $700 to $200, or something. And everybody in Canada was sitting there, you know, wondering, 'well, why don't we have that?'"
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Prentice said the Canadian government followed the U.S., loosening its grip on the airline industry throughout the 1980s and '90s. During that time, Air Canada became privatized and more carriers entered the Canadian market. As competition ramped up, airfares went down.
But that's not the only reason flying became cheaper, explained Prentice.
Advances in aviation technology meant planes became more fuel efficient and larger, which increased air cargo and passenger capacity. Prentice said that — along with the 1980s oil glut, brought down the price per seat.
Even when crude prices rebounded, legacy airlines like Air Canada couldn't go back to charging passengers as much for flights as they did before deregulation because they were up against the à la carte pricing model of no-frills carriers, said Lazar.
"Many people said, 'We didn't have to pay for bags, we got food for free, we didn't have to pay for earphones," Lazar said.
"Well now, in the lowest-fare categories, you do, because the airlines want to compete with the ultra low-cost carriers. And that's the only way they can do it."
Lazar, who has also worked as a consultant for Qantas, Air Canada and Porter Airlines, said stripping away the luxuries and packing more seats on planes is a "major contributing factor to making flying in economy much less comfortable and attractive, yet much more affordable."
Snafus at security
While Canadians often blame airlines for a lousy flying experience, chaos at airport security and gates can also contribute to the overall unpleasantness of air travel. Experts say that's because airports aren't designed for the realities of today's travel.
Between 1973 and 2008, Anthony Wade-Cooper was a flight attendant for CP Air, Canadian and Air Canada. He says before 9/11, he could make it from the check-in counter to the gate in 20 minutes.
"It was just so different. You just walked into the airport and you got on a flight," he said Wade-Cooper, who is now retired in a town called Mooloolaba on Australia's Sunshine Coast.
Nowadays, airlines ask passengers flying domestic to arrive at the airport two hours in advance and Wade-Cooper said he often spends most of that time standing in a queue.
Security snafus are also a result of a steady increase in air travel over the last decade — peaking in 2019 with nearly 163 million passengers passing through Canadian airports, according to Statistics Canada.
According to Lazar, most airports were not built for a post-9/11 world where every traveller has to take off their belt and shoes. There are also design problems when passengers arrive at gates. Lazar says some airports are designed like malls — a lot of shops and restaurants but not a lot of seating.
"There's no place to sit. You know, if you have long delays, where are you going to go?"
But what we get in exchange for fewer perks and busier airports, said Prentice, are cheaper flights — and that means more people than ever can afford to fly. Which he thinks is a "really good thing."
"More families can travel and, over time, families have split up wider and wider. My grandchildren are in Montreal and I'm in Winnipeg and I wouldn't see them very often if it weren't for air travel."
If you're wondering if there's a way to get back a bit of the elegance or at least the enjoyment of flying, Lazar said you can't expect to pay rock bottom prices.
He said the only way back to the golden age of travel is to fly first class or rent a private jet.
"Otherwise, just accept the fact that air travel is really the same as travelling on a bus. Except it gets you from A to B much more quickly."