Jeff Mills looks back fondly on premium travel in the golden age of flying.
My first trip in first class was on a BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) flight in 1973, just a year or so before the long-haul airline merged with its shorter-haul stablemate BEA (British European Airways) to form British Airways. And it was pure chance – and possibly a spot of overbooking by the airline – that saw me, in those days a young reporter, upgraded from the depths of economy to the heady heights of the premium cabin (there was no Club World or business class between first and economy in those days).
Then, as now, there were separate check-in desks for first-class passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport; though, back then, both Gatwick and Heathrow airports had check-in facilities in Kensington and Victoria, from where the airline would transport both you and your baggage (in special customs-sealed containers) to the airport. “Where would you like to sit, sir?” I was asked, “an aisle or window seat?” And, “would you like to be in the smoking or non-smoking section?”
Security in that era was a breeze, and just moments later I was in the first-class lounge in Terminal 3 (long before T4 was built), sipping the first gin and tonic of the day and studying my fellow passengers, many of them clearly senior business people, while we waited for the call to board our Boeing 747 to New York.
I was wearing a jacket and tie, as I was travelling for work, and without these I very much doubt whether I would have been blessed with an upgrade. Back then, formality was the order of the day for travellers in first class. Suits for the men and smart dresses for the women – this was a special occasion, after all.
Once on board we turned left towards the front of the aircraft to be greeted by crew in uniforms that could easily have passed muster on board one of the cruise liners of the time. This was the airborne equivalent of a trip on the QE2.
There was a glass of champagne and some tasty canapés before take-off, and perhaps a free cigarette or two. And the seats? They weren’t fully reclining like those of today, but what they lacked in recline they made up for in width, and they were very comfortable.
Lunchtime was an in-flight performance in its own right. First, one of the crew came along to take orders from the impressive in-flight menu and set my dining table, complete with bone china, crystal glasses and proper cutlery, on the pull-down tray. The stewards were now dressed for meal service, wearingstarched white jackets with gold-braided epaulettes, while the stewardesses were in smart pinafores.
Pre-lunch drinks were served, before an aperitif then starters. The pièce de résistance was the trolley bearing the main course. This trolley, not unlike those used in the Savoy Grill in London, was wheeled with great ceremony to your seat, where the chief steward or stewardess would carve the meat, having previously discussed with you how you would prefer it: rare or medium, of course.
There were magnificent desserts and exotic fruits, fine wines flowed, there was vintage port or barrel-aged brandy with the cheese trolley and then, of course, you could settle back in your seat with a post-lunch cigarette, though I seem to remember cigar- and pipe-smoking were discouraged in case the aroma was a bit too invasive for some passengers.
These days we pay first class for the space, some privacy and a good sleep, but in those days we paid for… what exactly? The event, perhaps. So instead of a nap we went up the spiral staircase to the lounge, fitted with sofa-like seats and its own bar, and got to know our fellow first-class flyers and some of the cabin crew, who had time to chat with customers. We were more social in the days before social media.
In real terms, the price of travel has dropped for most passengers. First class is still very expensive though, unless you are extremely flexible with your dates, or clever at redeeming miles. But even today when I’m lucky enough to fly first, I can’t help looking back with nostalgia to a time when a journey was an event to be shared with those around you rather than on social media – and it was more about the experience than about the seat type, and whether the plane has wifi. I only wish I’d taken some photos – not something anyone today is likely to forget.
Jeff Mills has been a travel reporter and editor for more than 30 years.