How first class flying has changed over the past 70 years

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Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 first class suite. Singapore Airlines
  • Modern commercial air travel is far from glamorous. For most people, it simply a means to get from point A to point B.
  • It pales in comparison to the pampered flying experience of during the 1960s.
  • However, the luxury of the Golden Age of air travel is still alive and well in the first class cabins of the world’s leading airlines.
  • Brands like Pan Am have given way to Singapore, Emirates, and Etihad.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Flying these days can be a slog.

For most of us, it’s something we tolerate as a means to get from point A to point B. It’s no longer a special occasion. For the travelling masses, commercial flying has been reduced down to the essence of what it is, public transportation.

Things didn’t use to be this way. We’ve all been regaled with tales of the Golden Age of air travel – of the 1960s jet-set that were lavished spacious seats, cosseting service, fine wines, and gourmet meals.

It puts into sharp relief our quotidian flying experience.

Read more: I flew on a $US10 million Embraer Phenom 300E and I now understand why it’s the most popular private jet in the world.

However, the glamor of the Golden Age has not completely gone away. It’s still very much alive and well in the first class cabins of the world’s leading airlines. In fact, I would argue that the first class experience today is vastly superior to that of decades past.

First off, flying, in general, is significantly more safe and reliable. According to data from the Flight Safety Foundation, the rate of fatal airliner accidents decreased from 4.2 per 1 million flight in 1977 to around 0.2 per million flights in 2017.

And then there’s the inflight experience. Modern first class cabins offer a greater degree of privacy, comfort, technology, and personalisation than the jet set could have ever imagined. With prices that could top $US40,000 for a round-trip, these tickets are far from affordable. Then again, neither was first class during the Golden Age of Flight.

Here’s a closer look at how first-class air travel has changed over the past 70 years.


The age of jet-powered scheduled passenger air travel kicked off in 1952 with the DeHavilland Comet 1. However, a series of fatal crashes between 1952 and 1954 forced the plane to be grounded for modifications. Even though later versions of the jet such as the Comet 3 seen here would go on to serve successfully in airline fleets around the world, it was no longer at the forefront of the industry.

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While the Comet was dealing with its troubles, it was overtaken by the Boeing 707 and…


… the Douglas DC-8 as the jet-powered workhorses of the airline industry. The jetliners of the era, while not quite as refined as today’s aircraft, were faster and smoother than their propeller-powered contemporaries.


The capabilities of the jetliner served a great complement to the first class services provided by the world’s airlines. this includes gourmet meals, …

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… reclining seats, and…

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… cocktail lounges.

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A flight attendant serves cocktails in the lounge of a new Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) Boeing 707, circa 1958. Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The introduction of the double-decker Boeing 747 jumbo jet in 1970 took first class service to new heights.


The extra width of the 747’s cabin gave airlines the ability to up their games even further.

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First class passengers in a BOAC Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet are served lunch. Fox Photos/Getty Images

The first class cabin’s gourmet dining and…

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A steward and stewardess serving first-class passengers with drinks and refreshments on board a Boeing 747. Fox Photos/Getty Images

… find Champagne remained

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But now, there’s a spiral staircase leading…

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… to the 747’s upper deck lounge. Some early jumbo jets were even equipped with pianos.

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Between 1976 and 2003, Air France and British Airways passengers had the opportunity to fly on the Concorde supersonic airliner.


Concorde’s main selling point was its speed. As a result, its cabin was small and somewhat cramped. However, passengers were treated to fine wines and gourmet meals.

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During the 1990s, airlines began to introduce 180-degree lie-flat seats to their first class cabins along with improved in-flight entertainment


By the late 90s, a new generation of first-class cabins with added privacy was beginning to take shape. In fact, they would play a huge role in the development of today’s business class seats.


The next leap forward for first class cabins coincided with the arrival of the Airbus A380.


The massive double-decker entered service with Singapore Airlines in 2007.


With the A380 comes the first class suite. The enclosed suite affords passengers an extra measure of privacy.


Two suites can even be merged to create a couple’s suite.

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Dubai’s Emirates is the A380’s largest customer with more 100 of the aircraft in the fleet.

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They too have launched their own first-class suites.

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Included in the offering, the access to an in-flight shower.

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However, the ultimate first class experience comes courtesy of Etihad.

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In 2014, the Abu Dhabi-based airline introduced the Residence first class suite on board its A380s.

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The Resident is a 125-square foot private suite complete with a living room,

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… en suite bathroom with shower, and…

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… a private in-suite bedroom.

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The Residence passengers will also have access to a personal butler. There is only one Residence suite per aircraft, and tickets can cost more than $US40,000 for a round trip between New York and Abu Dhabi.

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Eithad also offers a 45 square foot first-class suites called The Apartment.

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Passengers fly in The Apartment suites have access to a shared shower and…

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… a lounge stocked with beverages.

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In 2017, Emirates introduced its next generation of first-class suites onboard its fleet of Boeing 777 airliners. They are the industry’s first suites that enclosed from floor to ceiling, effectively making then flying hotel rooms.

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The new first class suite on Emirates’ Boeing 777. Emirates

The suites even come with artificial windows that use cameras mounted to the plane’s fuselage to give the passengers a view of the outside world.

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In 2017, Singapore Airlines also announced that it will spend $US850 million on a new generation of first-class suites for its fleet of 19 Airbus A380s.

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Once again, these suites can be joined to create a two-passenger mega-suite.

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