Throwback Thursday: When it cost a month’s wages to fly to London

Flying in the 1950s and ‘60s used to be impossibly glamorous, says JO KERRIGAN - not to mention exceedingly expensive - as she recalls the changes down the years
Throwback Thursday: When it cost a month’s wages to fly to London

Ulick O’Connor and James N Healy welcome actress Lady Sarah Churchill - daughter of Winston - to Cork Airport on September 14, 1967.

Do you remember a time when taking a flight was a glorious experience, a rare one because it was so unaffordably expensive, but hugely glamorous? When you actually dressed up for the occasion, brought mountains of luggage, were on your best behaviour, and in return were cosseted and spoiled and made to feel very important indeed by the hostesses who catered to your every need?

Even the airports, at Cork, Dublin, Shannon, were oases of glamour in themselves. It was quite the done thing to drive out there of an evening, have a drink, maybe dinner in the restaurant, and watch the planes arriving and departing.

Didn’t Cork have a balcony outside, where those waiting for incoming passengers could stroll and watch the skies for the expected flight? Oh, sic transit gloria mundi...

When was the first time you flew? Whatever the reason or event that occasioned it, it must surely have been a special experience?

Back in the 1950s and early ’60s, the only way out of Cork was by the Innisfallen, unless you were one of the wealthy gentry. Or, perhaps, one of the few lucky businessmen who could claim the exorbitant cost on expenses.

GLAMOROUS TRAVEL: Transatlantic flight on-board service in the 1950s
GLAMOROUS TRAVEL: Transatlantic flight on-board service in the 1950s

And as for taking holidays abroad - what a pipe dream! Even in the UK, slightly ahead of us in these cultural developments, only 7% of holidaymakers actually dared to go abroad. And then it was either to Ireland (where they might have relatives) or perhaps to France, and most of those journeys were by coach or train.

The jet age really started in the 1950s with the De Havilland Comet, followed by the Boeing. Airlines multiplied, but at that time the International Air Travel Association (IATA) ruled all air fares. It cost the same to go to New York, whatever airline you chose to travel with. And as a result, they all competed with each other - one had real metal cutlery and fine china; another offered dishes created by a top chef; and so on.

“First class was the only option. Why would you want any other class? Surely the working people don’t want or need to travel abroad?!

There is a wonderfully nostalgic old Aer Lingus advert on YouTube showing the elegance, the comfort, the reassurance of travelling with our national airline.

Smiling, unruffled pilots, charming hostesses tucking in a child’s blanket - it’s a nostalgic dream now. Even those boiled sweets they used to distribute before take-off (that was pre-pressurised cabins) have gone.

Who can remember the old multi-leaved tickets, one for each stage of the journey? (Woe betide you if the airport staff tore out the wrong one, and you were marooned abroad without a return!)

Or the generous allowance of luggage labels issued by the travel agent, for all those suitcases without which you couldn’t possibly travel? (These days, you’re lucky if you are allowed to bring on a small handbag.)

Once the IATA rules were scrapped, though, the way was opened for a tourist class at reduced fares, and the growth of air travel became an explosion. Soon we could all consider taking a flight without needing to get out a second mortgage to do so.

The arrival of Ryanair in the 1980s brought foreign travel into not just the affordable bracket but the ‘why on earth not?’ category.

This writer was re-reading the other day Keith Waterhouse’s book, The Theory & Practice Of Travel. It was published in 1989 and based on at least 20 years of journeying all over the world as a journalist and writer, so he knew what he was talking about when he proffered advice on how to book, where to go, the best tips and tricks for getting through airports, etc.

What strikes you forcibly (and sadly) in 2022, however, is how incredibly out of date this book is.

Even Michael Portillo’s 1913 Baedeker might be more useful, since it gives facts on things that aren’t likely to change (the Colosseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower, etc).

Waterhouse took the typical choices and journeys of his day, and used his considerable experience to give advice to others. How could he know that within a few decades the world of travel would have changed utterly?

For example, he points out that one of the worst things about airports is “the endless, aimless, exhausting, dehydrating waiting”. We 21st century travellers can’t argue with that, can we? But wait. He continues: “The check-in times are set far too early - often by as much as two hours before boarding.”

Do we hear a hollow laugh? When was the last time you were advised to be there with such a short time allowance?

It’s at least four hours now for short-hops, and probably the day before for long-haul flights! Yet back in the 1980s, Waterhouse gives this advice on dealing with the waiting ordeal: “Get there as near as possible to the deadline. If you’re constitutionally incapable of cutting it fine, set off as early as you wish, and head not for the airport but for one of the airport hotels, and have breakfast or lunch there... Don’t queue unnecessarily... Get on the plane last...” And so on.

There was a time - it’s still just about in folk memory - when you could roar up to the airport, park easily even as the plane door was being closed, and still make it on board, laughing merrily as you whisked up the steps. Not today you can’t.

LIFE OF LUXURY: Actor Richard Harris and his family at Cork Airport on January 2, 1965, including his wife Elizabeth.
LIFE OF LUXURY: Actor Richard Harris and his family at Cork Airport on January 2, 1965, including his wife Elizabeth.

Between the parking miles away and waiting for the transport bus, the queuing and the checking, the weighing of hand luggage and the examination of boarding passes, the filtering through from one security section to another, you are fortunate if you find time to buy a coffee, let alone drink it. And that’s with a five hour safety margin.

There is only one rule expounded by Waterhouse that still holds good. “The best place to be on a public holiday is at home with a six-pack, watching the ferry and airport queues on TV.”

Whenever you travel, he emphasises, it should definitely not be at bank holiday weekends or when schools are closed. Yes.

When we moved into the 21st century, travel became commonplace for almost everybody, not just the chosen few. Even kids who in the 1980s headed for London or just maybe New York were now taking working holidays in Australia or climbing K2 in their gap year.

Parents who had considered a week in Austria or Italy the summit of their ambitions were now exploring Chile or Cancun.

Then came 9/11, and all that brought with it in the way of added security checks, bans on liquids, limits on luggage, constant fear and pressure. Followed in short order by rocketing fuel prices, and finally the Covid pandemic.

The recent chaos over luggage at big international airports when the travel rules were relaxed was to be expected. Painful, but not surprising. More surprising was the IT glitch that cancelled Aer Lingus flights the other day.

Gosh, do you remember that 1963 film The VIPs? With Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor heading a starry cast of glamorous travellers gathering at Heathrow? And the fog descending, causing delays, which complicated the forward planning of so many of the passengers?

Remember how they were treated with velvet gloves? Given lunch, taken to hotels for the night, provided with plug-in phones right by their armchairs? Admittedly they were the important travellers, but the world depicted in that movie, with well-dressed people wandering around a very relaxed Heathrow, has, alas, gone for ever.

There was a time, back in the ’50s and ’60s when you could even check in on Cromwell Road in Kensington and get taken by bus to Heathrow. This was BOAC’s West London Air Terminal.

Did you ever see that Agatha Christie TV film, At Bertram’s Hotel, with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple? (the best characterisation ever of that great elderly lady detective). The absent-minded reverend on his way to Lucerne for a conference checks in at a very good reconstruction of the terminal. It meant you didn’t have to go through all that airport hassle that is inescapable these days. You checked in on Cromwell Road, easily reached by Tube, your luggage was loaded into a trailer, you got on to the bus, clutching your boarding pass, and were taken straight to the airport.

Unfortunately, they had to close the West London Air Terminal when traffic got so busy that they couldn’t guarantee the bus would get there on time. Plus ca change...

BOAC is no more. Nor are so many of the old famous airlines that feature in the movies and newscasts of yesteryear. In America, Northwest and Delta merged to form the new Delta Air Lines. United and Continental merged to create the new United Airlines. TWA was acquired by American Airlines. America West and US Air merged to become US Airways. American Airlines and US Airways then merged to form a new American Airlines under US Airways management.

Virgin America was acquired by Alaska Airlines while AirTran Airways and Morris Air were acquired by Southwest Airlines.

In Canada, Canadian Airlines was merged into Air Canada, while in the UK, British Caledonian and British Midland were both acquired by British Airways, itself created by the 1974 merger of British Overseas Airways Corporation, British European Airways, and two smaller regional carriers.

Pan-Am, founded as long ago as 1927 by two U.S Army majors, started with a fleet of flying boats, later moving on to Boeing jets. At the height of its popularity, it boasted that it “epitomized the luxury and glamour of intercontinental travel,” but in the hazardous business years of the late 20th century it went through a series of financial challenges before finally declaring bankruptcy in 1991. End of an era.

Or perhaps the beginning of a new one. Because, despite all the headaches of flying today (and they are many), the basic fact remains that it is now less expensive and far quicker than back in the ‘golden years’.

A U.S study has shown that to fly from Los Angeles to Boston in the 1940s would cost the equivalent of $4,500 today, whereas now it’s about a tenth of that. And the old flight would have taken over 15 hours with 12 stops, compared to six hours today.

In the 1960s, it cost about a month’s wages to fly from Cork to London. Today, if you choose your flights carefully, Ryanair can get you there for the price of coffee and scones for two.

So maybe the hassles are worth it? Back then, we didn’t have the hassles because we simply didn’t fly so much. Or at all!

What are your memories of flying back in the Fifties and Sixties? Tell us. Email - or leave a comment on our Facebook page:

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