Note: The “We Remember Blog” is published on a regular basis by Pat & Frank Fleming. In it they remember growing up in small town America during the 1940s and 1950s.
This is the third in a series of posts in which Pat & Frank recall air travel in the 1940s and 1950s. Click on the links at the end of this post to view earlier posts & comments in this series.
Airport Terminals in the 1940s and 1950s
The airport terminals in the 40s and 50s were comparatively small but highly efficient facilities. Most were long buildings with the airport’s control rising above the main one or two story structure from the center of the building. At that time, all of the airlines serving an airport utilized the same terminal and its centralized facilities. The concept of separate terminals for different airlines did not come into play until the early 1960s.
Most airport terminals in the 40s and 50s fronted on a small but adequately sized parking lot. Parking at some airports was still free at that time and parking spaces were never more than several hundred feet from the terminal. The front rows in airport parking lots were reserved for rental cars. The rare traveler who rented a car at the airport would stop at the rental car agency’s desk inside the terminal, fill out the paper work, pick up the keys and proceed through baggage claim to his car in the nearby parking lot. This procedure was reversed when the flyer returned the rental car. Since credit cards were for all practical purposes nonexistent in the 40s and 50s, rental car companies required large cash deposits before their cars left the airport.
Inside the terminal each airline had its own ticket/check-in counters staffed by scores of uniformed agents behind whom large manually updated bulletin boards listed the arrival and departure information for that airline’s flights. These boards were periodically updated by the ticket agents as the status of the various flights changed throughout the day.
Most departing passengers were already ticketed before they arrived at the airport having purchased their tickets from a Travel Agent or one of the numerous downtown
ticket offices that each airline maintained. In some suburban locations, several airlines often shared a single airline ticket office that, while under the same roof, were separately staffed by the employees of the often times competing airlines. Since credit cards were not in wide-spread use in the 50s and most of the 60s, most airline tickets were purchased with cash or checks. However, some business travelers carried and used special Universal Air Travel Card (UATC) corporate charge cards issued by various airlines’ trade groups. These cards which could only be used for air travel were difficult to obtain, often required a large cash deposit and usually were available only to the executives of larger corporations.
Tickets in the 40s and 50s were multi-paged coupon books with a separate page allocated to each leg of a trip. The information for all of the trip’s segments was hand entered onto the front page of these ticket books. Strategically placed red carbon paper on each subsequent coupon allowed the appropriate information for each leg of the trip to be copied in red to the appropriate place on the individual coupon for that segment of a trip. These individualized coupons were torn from the book at each departure point and served as the boarding pass for that segment of the flight. Most of the coupon ticket books were designed to accommodate up to four legs of a trip. If a trip involved more than four legs additional coupon books would be supplied. For passengers on long itineraries with multiple stops such as extended European vacations or business trips would often require the use of 3 or 4 ticket books.
On check in at the airport the appropriate baggage claim checks for the flight were stapled to the ticket coupon book. Agents would use multiple staples for each baggage tab to insure they did not fall off the book. This led to the belief that the most lucrative job in and around the airline industry was that of a staple salesman. When passengers checked in at the airport for a flight, their tickets were checked at one of the airline ticket counters where their baggage was weighed and checked through to their final destination.The usual free baggage allowance in the 40s and 50s was two 40 pound bags on Coach Class flights and two 50 pound bags on First Class flights. An over-weight fee of so much per mile was charged for each pound that bags were overweight. In some cases passengers themselves were weighed and a running tally was kept by the check-in agents of the total weight of the passengers and their baggage. If the combined weight of all of the passengers and their baggage exceeded certain pre-determined limits, the flight was declared filled and no additional passengers were allowed aboard. This provided a strong incentive for travelers to check in early for their flights.
Most of the airports in the 1940s and 50s had a small newspaper stand, a gift shop and a locally owned and operated coffee shop type restaurant. Some airports had bars in the 40s and 50s, but this was not always the case especially in areas of the south. It was not until the revolutionary “Theme Restaurant” opened at newly relocated Los Angeles Airport in 1961 until anything approaching fine dining was available between flights. Fast food restaurants did not start to appear in airports until the 1980s and 1990s. Although airport restaurants were not famous for their cuisine, the restaurant at Maui’s Kahului Airport in the 1950s and 60s was world-famous for its coconut cream pies.
Flying in the 1940s and 1950s was considered by many people as risky. Although airline crashes were not really that frequent, they were always the lead news stories when they
did occur which caused many potential flyers to develop a fear of flying. (We still remember many passengers would bless themselves and close their eyes in prayer from the time the pilot revved up the engines until the plane was well off the ground.)Capitalizing on this widespread fear of flying, every airport terminal had at least one kiosk that did brisk businesses selling flight insurance. Although the policies that were sold at these kiosks were relatively inexpensive, in reality they were a very expensive form of life insurance that covered a single passenger on a single trip and paid beneficiaries hundreds of thousand dollars if the plane crashed and the buyer was killed. Hundreds of people routinely lined up at the airport insurance kiosks to buy bought policies which they mailed home before boarding their flights.
The waiting areas in the airports of the 50s and 60s were nondescript rooms with plain, uncomfortable leather seats. In the smaller airports there was a single waiting room servicing all of the arriving and departing flights. Only the larger airports had separate waiting areas for either separate airlines or separate flights.
The waiting rooms usually had a single boarding door where passengers lined up to surrender their boarding passes, go down a set of stairs, cross the tarmac to their planes and ascend another set of portable stairs to the plane. In some European airports passengers descended the stairs and boarded buses that took them to their waiting planes in a remote part of the airport.
Despite the austere nature of most airports at that time, whole families would come to the airport to see departing passengers off and greet arriving friends and family. In the 40s and 50s, people always dressed in their finest to go to the airport whether to fly or greet travelling friends. Men wore suits & ties while women wore suits or good dresses, heels, hose and their fine jewelry. If they were going to or returning from a cool climate destination, many women wore their furs onto the planes.
Pat & Frank Fleming