How in-flight habits have changed since the 50s, according to frequent flyers

The ways in which we’ve entertained ourselves in-flight have largely been driven by technology.
The ways in which we’ve entertained ourselves in-flight have largely been driven by technology.
Image: Rishab Soni
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Younger generations have a hard time conceiving of an age in which Wi-Fi, smartphone music playlists, and a vast array of TV shows and movies weren’t standard inflight options. But interviews with a generational cross-section of seasoned flyers about the diverse ways they’ve entertained themselves in the sky reveals that the concept of “inflight entertainment” is itself a fairly recent development. However, in spite of technological advancements, some of the pleasures of flying are timeless.


Catching a flight in mid-century America had parallels to attending a fancy dinner party. “You got all dressed up to fly,” recalls one traveler. “I put on pantyhose and high heels. Men would wear a suit and tie.” While passengers today get headphones, in those days the stewardesses handed out, “papers, pencils, pens, slippers, and extra cushions.” Without the benefit of a screen in front of them, people got resourceful: “I remember coming home on a long flight from Europe, and I was nervous about flying, and the steward was the cutest young guy and he got me up and we did exercises and stretching in the aisle.”


Like the rest of the culture, clothing and attitudes relaxed a bit from the uptight ‘50s, but air travel was still considered a special occasion, as reflected in the meals. “The food and drink was very elegant.In first class there was beautiful china. We had steak, mashed potatoes. You always had warm nuts, which were wonderful, and also martinis, and good coffee.” And, of course, people talked, conversation spiced by the serendipity of meeting strangers in transit: “Everybody would kind of open up their life to their seatmate because they knew they’d probably never see them again.”


When smoking was so commonplace that it was permitted on flights, packs of cigarettes were a common tray table item. “The ashtrays in the armrests were one of the things I remember,” recalls another traveler. “Everyone used to wait for the no-smoking sign to go off and then, poof, there was a cloud of smoke.” And of course, then as now, passing the time with an inflight drink was common, though tastes in libations have perhaps changed: “Nobody really drank wine. It was almost all cocktails. People drank a lot of highballs.”


The 80s signaled the beginning of the shift into personal media devices.“It all started with the Walkman. The headphones were pretty big and pedestrian compared to today,” says one frequent flyer. But by and large, entertainment options remained fairly analog, especially by today’s standards. “People definitely did crossword puzzles. They read magazines, newspapers, books.” However, the introduction of music-playing devices signaled a shift from flying being a more collective, communal experience towards one more customized to suit individual tastes. “That was around when people realized that everyone didn’t want to share entertainment, everyone wanted something different. You began to appreciate that it’s hard to make everybody happy with the same things.”


With air travel and the commuting professional becoming increasingly common, a new perception arose of planes as multi-use spaces. “The plane became part bedroom, part office. You’d change your clothes on the flight, get ready for the next day, try to get a little sleep, eat a healthy meal,” says a professional who flew multiple times a week in the 90s. One of the major advances he recalls from that time was when, “they started to replace the telephone in the back seats with screens.” Technology started to take off and the introduction of laptops led to a surge in in-flight productivity. “On those longer flights you could get a lot of email and memo writing done offline.” The 90s also signaled the move away from the communal viewing experience of airline-selected entertainment on large screens towards personal screens and the ability for travelers to choose their own entertainment. “Going from trying to watch something on the ceiling to watching something on the seatback made things much more fun and under your own control.”

The 21st century

As the digital age took off, the entertainment options increased dramatically. “Not only could you use the backseat to watch movies or listen to the radio, you could access your own personal libraries of music or TV shows,” says one younger traveler. Yet the tech-enabled cornucopia of entertainment options hasn’t entirely phased out time-honored ways of passing time while in the air. “When I walk down the aisle now, I still see a lot of people reading or doing crossword puzzles,” says one professional who’s racked up countless miles. Another traveler, despite having an iPhone, laptop and personal screen at his seat, takes breaks to engage in activity shared by generations of flyers: appreciating the miracle of flight: “I love to just be comfortable in a seat, have a nice drink and look out the window for a while. Just space out. In my mind, that has always been great entertainment.”

These days you can prepare for endless onboard entertainment—with United’s personal device entertainment* you can stream hundreds of free movies and TV shows to your personal device during your flight. Just download the United app, charge your laptop, tablet, or phone, and remember to bring headphones.

This article was produced on behalf of United Airlines by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.

*Available on select flights.