Yes, it’s Tuesday, but unfortunately my internet was on strike yesterday.
This (Monday) morning, I was reflecting on the changes over the decades to flying and travelling internationally (and domestic).
My mother-in-law had a mantra which we maintain: “tickets, passport, wallets, kids”. Now that the latter are adults and we’re empty nesters, we can automatically tick one box at least. Of the other three, perhaps passports have changed the least, but we’ve seen a great many other changes. I wonder how many you remember?
- Tickets were multi-leaved flimsy documents and each page or leaf covered one sector of your flight booking. As you checked in, that leaf was torn out.
- You were checked in by real humans -some scary (if you were worried about luggage allowances) and some all smiley and happy. The check-in process didn’t yet make you feel like a rat in a maze.
- The in-flight cabin crew were usually men and women but the women were always young and beautiful. Qantas was renowned for having many male stewards. Of course there were no female pilots on any of the airlines at the time.
- Economy was still cattle-class but at least it hadn’t progressed to chicken-coop-class (3C) where your knees are against the seat in front (if you’re more than 5ft 4ins) or your hips are wedged against the armrests (if you’re not a stick insect any more).
- You were plied with large meals at every turn and received a glossy printed menu for each meal. The rationale that it’s better to have small, infrequent meals seems to have a lot less to do with health, than business economics.
- There were no long-haul flights per se. Aircraft had not yet been developed to fly Australia to Europe in two hops, or even one, with the new Dreamliner. Our most memorable trip in 1977 was Port Moresby, Manila, Bangkok, Karachi, Teheran, Rome. Kangaroo flight indeed. It got very tedious when you’d just got your kids to sleep then had to wake them up at that transit stop.
- In-flight entertainment was a whole other ballpark. The crew would offer you a variety of newspapers and magazines – of course the women were automatically offered “women’s” mags and the men the business papers and magazines. You carried the books you thought you’d read en route but obviously weight was an issue. Tiny packs of playing cards were sometimes handed out and the children got kid’s packs of colouring books etc. If they were lucky they were (rarely) taken up to the see the flight deck.
- You carried your Frommer’s “Europe on $5/$10 a day” because there was a limit to how much pre-planning and pre-booking you could do in advance. What’s the internet? What’s a computer?
- If you worried about safety it was more to do with weather and potential crashes (especially flying in Papua New Guinea). While terrorist attacks happened in those days, they seemed less of a threat than they do since 9/11….or perhaps the powers-that-be have hyped up this fear.
- Smoking was permitted on the aircraft and even when there was a no-smoking section it did little to improve the overall air quality.
- Alcohol was free (I think) and many people made sure they took advantage. I was not impressed with the family behind us en route to Rome when the couple drank and drank, leaving their children to pester those in neighbouring seats.
- The toilet facilities had toiletries even in economy – but then I guess they were long flights!
- You received a proper in-flight pack of socks, eyeshade, ear plugs and toothbrush.
- You could carry water through check-in and on board.
- You had no clue where you were between transit stops – there were no in-flight maps or camera in the aircraft nose etc – but you looked out the windows and gained a sense of the world. I still remember flying over vast tracts of north-west India into Pakistan and seeing little villages lit-up in a sea of darkness.
- There were no in-flight TVs (or streamed to an iPad – what’s that?) hence no music, TV shows, movies, games etc.
- There were no eye-scanners at Passport control.
- Vaccinations were still required for smallpox and cholera, even for trips to Europe.
- International flights were something many people could only dream of because of the expense. We were lucky that our PNG employment conditions enabled us to convert our Australian flight entitlement to a (partial) overseas fare.
- We’ve paid for cheaper fares and accessibility to overseas flights with many of the economic cost-cutting measures the airlines have implemented: fewer meals, more squashed seats, paying for checked-in luggage etc.
- Of course the truly brave souls, including some of our friends, backpacked from London to Australia through many of the countries that are now international hotspots.
After 30 odd hours you arrived
- On the ground in Europe, your passport was stamped as you crossed each border. If you were on an overnight train, you were regularly woken by immigration and train officials for ticket and passport inspections. This could get very tedious.
- You had to check you had visas for the relevant countries you were visiting and also, for us, re-Entry Permits back to Papua New Guinea.
- Every country had its own currency so it gave your mental arithmetic a work-out. Credit cards took weeks for payments to be processed. You carried travellers’ cheques as there were no ATMs or bank cash cards.
- You wrote aerogrammes home and sent postcards, not emails. If you needed to get in touch with home, you went to a large post office, booked an international call, and were sent to a particular cubicle.
- You took slides or photos and sent the film home to be developed.
- And when you flew back into Australia, before you could disembark, two men would come up the aisles with spray cans aloft spraying any wayward insects that had tried to hitch a free ride to Australia.
I did a rough tally of the airlines we’ve flown with internationally since 1974: Qantas, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Scandinavian (SAS), Air Nuigini, Malaysian, Philippines Airlines, Royal Nepal, British Airways/BOAC, United, Air Canada, Aer Lingus, Singapore Airlines, Thai, Japan Airlines (JAL), SwissAir, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Jetstar and others I’ve probably forgotten.
I’ve only flown Business internationally twice: once when we went finish[i] from Papua New Guinea and on a Los Angeles-Brisbane flight in 1989, thanks to a dodgy move they tried on. I look at the cost, then at what we can use that for in other travel and back to chicken-coop-class we go. Maybe one day when we’re older and grey-er.
What are your memories of those flights of our youth? Fond and rose-coloured, or tinged with horrors?
[i] “Going finish” was the term used by expats in Papua New Guinea when they left the country for good. It could be a very emotional and pivotal time for each family.