From the early days of flight and the “golden age of travel”, to modern-day budget airlines and the current regulations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, air travel has changed a lot over the past century. Here, we take a journey through time to bring you the biggest milestones in commercial aviation history.



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Throughout the 1920s and 1930s it became common for mail to be transported by air and many airmail aircraft would also carry passengers. One such airline was Western Air Express, which merged with Delta in 1987. The airline carried its first load of mail in April 1926 and was welcoming passengers by May of the same year – this first route was Salt Lake City to Los Angeles via Las Vegas. A Fokker F-10 Western Air Express plane is pictured here in 1928.



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Other notable early commercial airlines included the now defunct Pan American Airways and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which is still in operation. KLM reached destinations all over Europe, including Copenhagen, London and Paris. This photo shows Lady Heath, Britain’s first female passenger-line pilot, in a KLM-owned Fokker aircraft.



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Life onboard a 1920s aircraft was very different from that of the modern day. Flights were a lavish affair reserved only for the richest members of society. Passengers had their every need attended to and were waited on with fine food and drink. However, the ride itself wouldn’t have been so comfortable. Planes traveled at a much lower altitude, so passengers were subjected to lots of noise, turbulence and long journey times.



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In-flight entertainment technology continued to improve too. This snap, taken in 1931, shows passengers listening to a live radio broadcast of the annual London boat race between Oxford and Cambridge universities.



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Another commercial aviation milestone was reached in 1935, when Qantas operated its first international passenger flight. The service traveled from Brisbane to Singapore, where it was picked up by British-owned Imperial Airways. This journey would set the foundations for travel between Australia and the UK in the coming decades, and was a precursor to the iconic “Kangaroo Route”.



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Commercial airlines did everything they could to make passengers feel comfortable. Alongside the help of attentive staff, 1930s passengers would be able to enjoy plush aircraft cabins worlds away from the no-frills set-up of the modern day. This Imperial Airways cabin, captured circa 1935, boasted pillowy floral seats, patterned walls and curtains with decorative trim. This particular plane was generally used on a Paris–London route throughout this decade.



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One 1930s invention would seriously revolutionize commercial air travel. The Douglas DC-3 had its first flight in 1935 and raised the bar when it came to commercial airliners. It was larger, faster and more comfortable than any model that had preceded it and it was soon snapped up by industry heavyweights such as Delta, TWA, American and United. A United Douglas DC-3 aircraft is pictured here cruising through the air.



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The 1930s also saw some of the earliest commercial flights across the Atlantic. Pan American Airways was one of the forerunners, transporting passengers across the Atlantic by 1939. The Yankee Clipper aircraft or “flying boat”, which was used to undertake this journey, is pictured here in Calshot, Southampton, UK after a flight.



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Pan Am began operating its fleet of Boeing 307 aircraft in the 1940s. The Boeing 307 was another model that propelled commercial aviation forwards, since it was the first to boast a pressurized cabin. This meant passengers (as pictured onboard here c.1945) could enjoy a comfortable ride at around 20,000 feet (6,000m). The model was also flown by TWA.



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As competition increased towards the end of this decade, the major airlines ramped up their advertising. This TWA poster advertises the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, and promises a smooth ride as the aircraft glides above the clouds. The 1940s was ultimately the decade that preceded the so-called “golden age of travel”.



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Commercial air travel boomed through the 1950s and, for the first time in history, more US passengers were traveling by air than train. The 1950s also ushered in the “jet age”. The de Havilland DH 106 Comet became the world’s first commercial jet airliner, debuting in 1952 with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). Here, crowds are seen waving the aircraft off as it leaves London for Johannesburg, South Africa.



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The de Havilland DH 106 Comet jet airliner was much faster than earlier piston aircraft, slicing hours off journey times and making the world smaller still. The model could hold 36 passengers and, here, one traveler on the inaugural flight enjoys ample legroom and a slap-up meal with wine. However patrons’ confidence in the aircraft model plummeted in the coming years as it suffered a series of crashes.



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The jet age was not over yet, though. The Boeing 707 jet airliner, which was introduced later in the decade, was larger and even more economical than its predecessor, and would enjoy much more commercial success. Pan American Airways began a regular service with this aircraft in 1958 and the model would remain in civil operation right up until 2019. This photograph shows crew embarking on a test flight with Pan Am back in 1958.



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Though commercial aviation was developing at an alarming rate, it hadn’t quite opened up to the masses yet. In this decade, plane tickets were still very expensive, so air travel was the domain of the wealthy and elite. Fit for royalty, this BOAC flight landed Her Majesty the Queen safely in Bermuda in 1953: she visited the country just months after her coronation.



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Without the hi-tech entertainment systems of the modern day, passengers were forced to find other ways to occupy themselves on a long flight. Flying was still a real novelty, so air stewards would often hand out postcards for passengers to document their on-board experience. Travelers would spend their flight scribbling details about their time in the air, from the fine food to the free-flowing booze.



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The concept of the in-flight movie, though gaining popularity, was still not commonplace across all aircraft, and it wouldn’t truly take off until the 1960s. Before this, it wasn’t completely unheard of for passengers to enjoy live performances from singers and musicians. Otherwise, they’d content themselves with reading and mingling with fellow passengers and crew.



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Passengers are receiving similar treatment on this SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) flight in 1969. In this instance, the chef has even come to serve and greet dining first-class passengers. Flying was such an important occasion that it was common for passengers to come aboard in their finest clothes too, with women in dresses and men opting for tailored suits.



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The term “jet-set” was coined to refer to those who were privileged enough to travel on these new commercial jet airliners. Among the regular passengers were the biggest celebrities of the day. Here, The Beatles are pictured in their heyday, leaving a Pan Am flight in London in 1964.



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In the 1960s, development on what would become one of the most iconic aircraft in commercial aviation began. The project had been floated since the 1950s, and the aim was to create a supersonic airliner that would revolutionize commercial aviation. Concorde made its maiden test flight in 1969 and here flight attendants from various airlines stand before a full-scale model of the aircraft.



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Though many airlines initially showed interest in Concorde, numerous orders were dropped after concerns were raised as to the aircraft’s noise, environmental impact and economic potential. In the end, only Air France and BOAC would operate Concorde. The airliner is pictured here at London Heathrow in 1976 as it begins service with a BOAC flight from the UK to Bahrain.



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Concorde got the royal seal of approval (the Queen is pictured here onboard a Concorde aircraft in 1977), with its ability to cross the Atlantic in just 3.5 hours. But only a privileged few could afford to ride aboard the Concorde and it ultimately didn’t shake up commercial air travel in the way it had been hoped. Canceled routes, economic setbacks and a devastating crash meant the Concorde was out of service by 2003.



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Another major player in the 1970s was Laker Airways, which was actually founded in 1966. While Laker began as a charter service, in the 1970s it would become an early “no frills” airline, a predecessor of today’s budget airlines. Pictured here is Laker’s jubilant founder Freddie Laker, celebrating the airline’s successes through the 1970s.



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Another major leap for commercial air travel in this decade came with the introduction of the Boeing 747, a wide-bodied jet aircraft able to carry many more passengers than its predecessors. Here, the American First Lady Patricia Nixon sprays Champagne onto the aircraft ahead of its maiden commercial flight from New York to London in service with Pan Am in January 1970.



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This was the first time that air travel was truly opening up to the masses. Since planes were larger, airlines were able to hold more passengers and therefore sell more tickets at a reduced price. Though flying still wasn’t cheap, it was no longer only reserved for the super-rich. This 1970s shot shows the spacious cabin of a BOAC Boeing 747, filled with families, couples and other vacationers.



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Those passengers who could afford it needn’t skimp on luxury, though. Here, travelers in first class are served Champagne by a flight attendant on a Boeing 747 operated by Pan Am in 1970.



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The long and lavish onboard lunches that characterized the “golden age of travel” weren’t lost in the first-class cabin in the 1970s either. In this shot, taken on 22 January 1970, flight attendants carve ham seat-side, their trolley weighed down with bread and fine wine and spirits.



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Swish onboard lounges were still commonplace for first-class guests too and most travelers would socialize with their fellow passengers over drinks. This lounge was onboard SAS’s Boeing 747-B (nicknamed the “Huge Viking”) in the 1970s.



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The 1980s arrived and it wasn’t kind to all commercial airlines. In this photo, at the turn of the decade, Laker can be seen celebrating further cuts to the fares of his transatlantic Skytrain service. However, there wasn’t cause for celebration for long, since Pan Am also dropped the cost of its transatlantic journeys to compete. The recession of the early 1980s hit Laker hard too.



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The fate of Laker Airways didn’t stop the rise of other low-cost carriers though, and Ryanair launched in 1985. Early services covered short distances, with the first flights operating from Ireland’s Waterford to London Gatwick. Ryanair set the bar for today’s budget airlines and it’s now one of Europe’s largest carriers. A branded aircraft is pictured here at Stuttgart Airport in 1988.



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Balancing out the rise of the low-cost carrier, Virgin Atlantic Airways was also launched in this decade. Branson’s mission was to pay homage to the golden era of travel by elevating the experience of flying once more, offering passengers a luxurious but not unattainable journey. On 22 June 1984, Branson celebrates the launch of his new airline.



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Through this decade, as flying became more and more commonplace, the economy class cabin looked much as it does today. Lavish, multi-course meals had been mostly replaced with more humble dinners served from boxes or trays. This photo shows a SAS flight attendant serving boxed meals to passengers.



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Another major change came in 1988 when, for the first time, smoking was prohibited on US domestic flights of less than two hours. Just a year later, the law was extended to flights of six hours, which applied to almost every flight across the country. This smoking ban wasn’t adopted internationally until 2000.



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The budget-airline boom continued right into the 1990s, when easyJet was launched in 1995. At first, it flew only from London Luton Airport to Scottish destinations Edinburgh and Glasgow, before expanding across Europe. By this decade, these low-cost carriers meant air travel was no longer necessarily seen as a luxury.



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The introduction of Ryanair and easyJet (and also Norwegian in 1993) meant pressure was put on traditional carriers, fares were pushed down and air travel became increasingly more accessible. As travelers also began booking vacations online, competitive pricing became more important than ever.



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This increased competition didn’t help long-standing carriers such as Pan American World Airways. The struggle to compete with budget rivals – as well as the 1973 oil crisis, a well-publicized hijacking and some devastating crashes – led to Pan Am’s demise. The airline finally collapsed on 4 December 1991, a significant milestone in the history of commercial aviation.



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The devastating events of 9/11 had an impact on commercial air travel, as well as passengers’ experience at airports across the USA and beyond. In the aftermath of the tragedy, airport security was heightened significantly. One notable change was that people without a boarding pass could no longer pass through security to see their loved ones off at the gate. This photograph shows scenes at Salt Lake City International Airport on 30 September 2001.



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Another change post-9/11 was heightened cockpit security. In past decades, it was possible for passengers to visit the cockpit. After 2001, however, cockpit doors were made much stronger and advanced locking systems meant the pilot could control who enters and deny access in the case of an emergency.



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Another relatively modern phenomenon is premium economy class, which offers a slightly more elevated experience than regular economy, but without the luxury and sky-high prices of business class. Though the concept was invented before the 2010s, it’s in this decade that premium economy has really taken off with more and more airlines offering passengers this option. The usual perks include more legroom, wider seats and extra baggage allowance.



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