What Flights Used to Cost in the 'Golden Age' of Air Travel

Flying is actually cheaper and better than it's ever been.

Airfare Then and Now
Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images; Getty Images/Hero Images

In spite of all our complaints about smaller seats, poor customer service, and the burn of basic economy, when put in the proper historical perspective, air travel is more accessible, affordable, and comfortable than ever.

Need proof?

Just picture yourself booking a roundtrip “tourist class” flight to Amsterdam for $4,168.55, or paying $12,089.55 for a 30-day flight around the world.

In the mood for a quick, cheap getaway? How about New York City to Chicago for $445.25? Or, go all the way to Los Angeles, with a quick stop in Chicago, on a 13-hour journey for upwards of $1,600.

If you value time as money, today’s air travel saves you a bundle. And in cash adjusted for inflation, the cost of flying has plummeted.

According to a study by Compass Lexecon, commissioned by Airlines for America, the average flight from L.A. to Boston in 1941 was worth $4,539.24 per person in today’s money, and it would have taken 15 hours and 15 minutes with 12 stops along the way. By comparison, a nonstop flight in 2015 would cost $480.89 and take only six hours. Thanks to intensifying low-cost competition, we can find airfares as cheap as $283 today.

Golden Age of Airfare
Courtesy of Airlines for America

But we don’t need to go all the way back to the 1940s to see how cheap airfare has become.

Part of the reason flying was so exclusive and relatively luxurious in the '40s, '50s, and '60s was that it was very expensive. Until the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, airlines were considered a public utility and airfares were set by the federal government, which ensured airlines always made more than enough money.

Even after deregulation, a basic domestic round-trip airfare in 1979 averaged $615.82 in today's money. That average fare dropped to $344.22 by 2016. Fees have risen dramatically from the equivalent of $1.65 in 1979 to $22.70 by 2016, but even with those fees added back in, airfares are much cheaper.

The Compass Lexecon study showed that, between 1990 and 2016, the domestic price per mile to fly decreased by 40 percent (and by 36 percent when you factor in fees). At the same time, fuel costs have risen for airlines by 110 percent since 1998, and airlines faced sharp drops in demand during the Great Recession of 2008-2009. With no regulatory protections for the industry, these set-backs and high costs led to bankruptcies and mergers, as they have in the past. But low-cost competitors ensure consumers can still pick between two or more airlines in most U.S. markets, which keeps the pressure on other airlines to keep those airfares affordable.

Because flying is cheap, many more people fly today in larger planes with more seats onboard. Air travel has evolved from the privilege of a few into a service for many.

And it has grown in staggering numbers. In 2000, airlines carried 1.6 billion passengers, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). By 2005, that number had grown to 2.1 billion. By 2015, airlines had served 3.5 billion passengers and they are expected to serve 4 billion passengers this year.

Security risks are greater and security lines are longer. People don’t wear their best suits to fly anymore. Deregulated, democratized, affordable air travel is very different from the glamorous air travel of those far-gone days, but at least more of us get the pleasure of complaining about it.

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