Despite our complaints, air travel really has changed the world

Innovation Hub
A PanAm jet and flight attendant

Flying was a more glamorous (and expensive) proposition during the glory days of Pan Am.


When it comes to air travel, there’s a lot to complain about. Long security lines, a seat that feels like it’s four inches wide, and, of course, delays.

Unless you’re very wealthy, air travel often sucks.

It’s a very different atmosphere from how we picture airlines’ "Golden Age." During the 1940s and '50s, people dressed up, stewardesses were glamorous, and (as demonstrated in this Pan American ad) delicious food was served on fine china.

But even the heyday of air travel had its issues, according to Jenifer Van Vleck, author of Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendency.

“Even during the so called ‘Golden Age’ of travel, passengers complained a lot. ... In the late '40s, there was a huge boom in air travel ... the war had created this whole infrastructure of airports and facilities that could theoretically sustain the passenger boom, but it turned out they actually couldn’t. So people complained all the time that airports were too crowded, that planes had to circle the airports for an hour.”

Still, despite our griping, aviation has definitely changed America.

Van Vleck believes that the rise of commercial aviation — amidst the post-war boom — transformed America’s conception of itself. It increased awareness of other cultures, and changed Los Angeles and Tokyo from distant cities to, in some ways, next door neighbors.

It changed America’s geography too:

“Air travel increased the significance of cities that otherwise wouldn’t be as important. In the South, air travel was the key means by which Atlanta and Houston made themselves into global cities.”

Though air travel wasn’t as economically transformative as some experts in the 1940s predicted (they thought that every garage would have a personal airplane, and cities like New York might have eight or nine airports), it certainly sped up the pace of business, allowing companies to place satellite offices throughout the world.

And modern sports would be unimaginable without quick and convenient air travel.

So, as you sit, cramped and uncomfortable, on your next flight, perhaps that’s something to think about. Air travel might not be fun, but modern America wouldn’t be the same without it.

This story was first published by PRI's Innovation Hub