Our multi-stop trip through each decade of the aviation industry is touching down once more in the surprisingly alcohol-fueled 1970s. With the groundbreaking 1930s, the explosive 1940s, the golden 1950s, and the swinging 1960s of the commercial airline industry in our rearview mirrors, let’s revisit the decade that brought us “hostesses in hot pants” and more liquor than we could ever know what to do with. Grab a Southern Airways shot glass and pour yourself a drink. This was what it was like to fly in the 1970s.
747s in the 70s: On January 21, 1970, Pan Am flew passengers from New York City to London aboard the very first commercial 747 flight. Spiral staircases connected two decks. Widescreen movies were played in the cabins for more than 500 passengers in some configurations. Airlines suddenly had room to breathe, dream and design their wildest ideas. The 747 brought us many things, but the most important of all was possibility.
The great expense account scheme: Plucky upstart Southwest Airlines was only three years into operations at the turn of the decade, and lacked the infrastructure and scale to compete on price with airlines like Braniff Airways and Texas International, which offered intra-Texas flights from Dallas to Houston for just $13 (About $81 in 2016 when adjusted for inflation). So in one of the industry’s savviest ploys ever, Southwest began pairing its $26 tickets for comparable routes with a full-size bottle of premium alcohol to be taken home by the passenger after the flight. Businessmen traveling on company expense accounts flocked to the pricier fares in order to score a bottle of the good stuff, and Southwest cemented its standing as a serious contender.
Popping bottles…in coach: Southern Airways leaned into its southern heritage hard in the 70s, famously billing itself as the “Route of the Aristocrats”. And while it’s hard to imagine an aristocrat booking a travel itinerary with four layovers just to get from one part of Georgia to another, the airline certainly played up one part of Southern society aboard its flights: the free-flowing alcohol. Champagne was served in coach, and passengers were sent home with complimentary shot glasses, of which a new collectible design was released each year. A series of accidents eventually led to the booziest airline’s demise in 1979.
“You can find me in the club…” Don’t think that Southern was the only airline having a blast at 30,000 feet. In the 1970s, the party never stopped. American Airlines removed 60 seats from its Luxury Fleet of 747 jets in order to build a lounge large enough to fit both a piano and a bar that served complimentary cocktails. Continental, on the other hand, equipped its fleet with a flying pub, complete with arcade games and yes, complimentary booze. These celebratory airplane redesigns were largely the result of the industry’s longstanding two-drink limit being struck down, freeing passengers to imbibe to their heart’s — and liver’s — content.
The Age of Airline Deregulation: In the decades following the Airmail Scandal, government regulation — originally put in place to keep airfares fairly priced and individual routes and destinations from being bombarded with competing, empty flights — had begun to go against its original intention. Numerous case studies showed that unregulated airline startups were able to offer fares lower than the protected legacy carriers. So in 1978, President Jimmy Carter dissolved the Civil Aeronautics Board, and subsequently granted airlines both new and old the powers to set their own fares, decide their own route maps, and learn for themselves what the market might bear.
Two-tiered pricing takes off: Southwest was positively full of marketing tricks in its early years of operation, but this move might take the cake. The airline’s first president, Marion Lamar Muse, offered a reduced rate for relocation flights. Without a lick of advertising, Southwest quietly launched a second-tier ticket price of just $10 on the last flight from Houston to Dallas at the end of the week. The plane, Muse reasoned, had to be in Dallas anyway to kick the following week’s flight schedule off, so they might as well try to make a buck while repositioning the plane. It took just two weeks for the route to go from zero passengers to fully booked, at which point Southwest expanded the second-tier scheme to the final flight of every route each day.
Muse’s two-tier pricing is heralded as one of the single-most important marketing plays in aviation history, and paved the way for the spread in pricing we see across flights occupying the same route at different times today, as well as the cruise industry’s fan-favorite repositioning cruises.
Fresh cut flowers (and roast beef!): If it could be cut with a sharp blade, chances are it was cut aboard an airplane in the seventies. Pan Am boasted that hot meals were prepared simultaneously in four different galley kitchens aboard each flight — that is, the parts of the meal that weren’t carved to order by the flight attendant in the aisle. Likewise, “vibration-free” innovation meant airlines were able to deck out their cabins and powder rooms — the size of your own at home! — with vases full of fresh-cut flowers.
A seat with a view: Few things are more of a let down in life than scoring a “window seat” aboard a plane that doesn’t actually line up quite right with a window. The average seat pitch — the distance between seats that we commonly refer to as legroom — in the 1970s was 34 inches. This number, as opposed to the 32 or even 28 inches offered by some airlines today, aligned perfectly with the windows of a plane, so that each row was sandwiched exactly between two windows. Airline deregulation may have brought us more competitive prices, but at the cost of seat pitch.