The “golden age” of air travel

Flights are cheaper and faster than they’ve ever been. Yet the ad­ven­ture of air travel be­fore the jet age had its own ap­peal


Travel is of­ten a topic of con­ver­sa­tion when we meet friends. We live in for­tu­nate times. Di­rect routes from air­ports are open­ing up new des­ti­na­tions; we are lucky to be able to jump on a plane and, a few hours later, find our­selves half­way around the world.

I re­cently flew on the world’s long­est com­mer­cially op­er­ated flight. It took me from Auck­land to Doha, a dis­tance of 14,535km, but a mere 17 hours 40 min­utes from wheels up to wheels down. The time passed sur­pris­ingly quickly.

The flight from Lon­don to Perth is now the long­est non-stop flight (14,498km) and gives peo­ple the op­tion of skip­ping the famed Kan­ga­roo Route (fly­ing from Aus­tralia to Europe with stops in Asia) of which Qan­tas cel­e­brates its 70th an­niver­sary this year.


A re­cent present left me think­ing about just how lucky we are to have these easy jour­neys avail­able at the click of a mouse. The gift was a copy of Brad­shaw’s In­ter­na­tional Air Guide, 1934, and it is a re­minder of just how far we have come in a rel­a­tively short time.

I re­searched three jour­neys, which we take very much for granted to­day: Lon­don to Rome, Lon­don to Cape Town, and Lon­don to Sin­ga­pore. To­day, many peo­ple can nip off to Rome for lunch and still be home in time to put the chil­dren to bed. In 1934 the jour­ney took three days, and routed you from Lon­don to Brus­sels, Cologne, Frank­furt, Mu­nich, Venice and then Rome. The sin­gle fare at the time clocked in at £18.16s (`1,659) 2d, or the equiv­a­lent of around £1,240(`1,13,278) to­day.

Cape Town was a ten-day jour­ney, which re­quired tak­ing a plane to Paris, train to Brin­disi, then aero­plane to Athens, Alexan­dria, Cairo, Wadi Halfa in Su­dan, Khar­toum, Juba, En­tebbe, Nairobi, Dodoma, Mbeya, Bro­ken Hill (in Rhode­sia), Sal­is­bury, Bu­l­awayo, Jo­han­nes­burg, Kim­ber­ley and fi­nally Cape Town. Just look­ing at this itin­er­ary ex­hausts me, but it must have been thrilling. Pas­sen­gers would stop at var­ied lo­ca­tions, rest­ing in ho­tels or camps overnight, be­fore recom­menc­ing the jour­ney the next day. Ar­rival times were not al­ways pub­lished; some­times they were put as “late af­ter­noon” or “evening”. The cost of a sin­gle to Cape Town was £130, or around £8,500 one-way in to­day’s money.

The hop, skip and jump to Sin­ga­pore was equally amaz­ing. It fol­lowed the same itin­er­ary as far as Cairo, then split and went via Gaza, Baghdad, Basra, Bahrain, Shar­jah, Gwadar, Karachi, Jodh­pur, Delhi, Kan­pur, Cal­cutta, Akyab, Ran­goon, Bangkok, Alor Star and Sin­ga­pore. This eight-day jour­ney cost £180 (`11,874), or around £11,800 (`10,77,805)to­day.

On these jour­neys both pas­sen­gers and lug­gage were weighed (some­thing Fin­nair has re­cently re­vived, al­beit on a vol­un­tary ba­sis to gather data). The no­tional weight per pas­sen­ger was 100kg for trav­eller plus bag­gage. The car­ri­ers es­ti­mated that the av­er­age per­son at the time weighed 75kg, and thus were per­mit­ted 25kg of bag­gage. If cus­tomers were slightly more portly, a sur­charge of 1 per cent of the one-way fare was made per ad­di­tional kilo­gram.

The ex­pense of these jour­neys was high. Pas­sen­gers spent eight or ten days with the same crew, overnight­ing in ho­tels/camps where food and drinks were of­fered. The air­line’s costs for sourc­ing fuel, sup­plies and en­gi­neers along the route was in­vari­ably quite ex­pen­sive. And the few air­craft pro­duced to fly these routes hardly came at a bar­gain price.

The jet age emerged with the Comet, 707 and DC-8, fol­lowed quickly by the DC-10 and 747, which opened up many des­ti­na­tions to mass tourism. But they were still stop­ping routes. Flights to Hong Kong touched down in the Gulf; in­bound flights from Thai­land or Sin­ga­pore were routed via In­dia. Some of the longer runs in­cluded BA’s Lon­don-Auck­land ser­vice, which stopped in the Gulf, In­dia, South East Asia and Perth be­fore ar­riv­ing in Auck­land. This was a 21-day trip for the crew, and not one that many looked for­ward to, as it was such a long time to be away from home.

To­day travel seems to have found a happy bal­ance be­tween small and large air­craft, with mid-size 787s and A350s open­ing up non­stop routes to smaller mar­kets while of­fer­ing a va­ri­ety of fares and cab­ins for cus­tomers on dif­fer­ent bud­gets. So why not sam­ple su­perb wines in Chile? Or hop down to Aus­tralia for some win­ter sun­shine? It makes the world seem ter­ri­bly small, but what a thrill and priv­i­lege that we can now ex­plore it so eas­ily.

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