What International Air Travel Was Like in the 1930s

Plane Journey

Today, we pretty much take air travel for granted. You can travel from one end of Europe to the other for less than $100 if you plan ahead, and virtually every big city in the world is just a hop and a plane ticket away, no matter where you are. But what was it like in the 1930s? It was nothing short of amazing – if you could afford it, that is.

They did it with style

At the dawn of commercial air travel, Imperial Airways was Britain’s shuttle to the world. During World War I, Britain’s air fleet was instrumental to the victory. After the war, they still had a surplus of warplanes that would allow them to kickstart commercial air travel – something unimaginable before WWI. Imperial’s planes of the 1920s (made of wood and fabric), made the slow transition to more ‘modern’ airplanes (made of metal), and it wasn’t long before they were showing the rich and famous every corner of Europe – and of the world.

The shift to metal airplanes was especially important because it allowed transportation in some of the most exotic places of the world, as Peter Fearon explains in his 1985 paper on the history of British aviation:

Indeed, the Air Ministry encouraged manufacturers to move towards the use of metals in airframe manufacture not because of the advantages that could be gained from streamlining, but because, especially in tropical regions, metal was more durable than wood.

The switch from biplane (depicted above) to the monoplane (depicted below), also made the entire experience seem much more spacious and modern. The distinguished citizens of the British empire felt like they stepped into the future.

Harrowing adventure and indulgent luxury

Traveling by airplane, something rather common for many people today, was a special experience in and of itself. But it was an experience that people who could afford it signed up for in droves. An estimated 50,000 people flew Imperial Airways from 1930 until 1939 – and they payed a LOT! The longest flights spanned 12.000 miles (about 20.000 km), and, adjusted to inflation, they costed $20,000 !

But it wasn’t all about the money – times was a major difference as well. Flying from London to Brisbane, Australia, for instance, (the longest route available in 1938) took 11 days and included over 20 scheduled stops! Today, you can do the same flight in 22 hours, with a single, short stop in Hong Kong. Oh, and it costs just under $2.000. But we don’t get chairs like these nowadays.

Advertising in the 30s

Even though the principles of advertising haven’t dramatically changed, things were very different back then. Imperial Airways used a lot of print advertising to highlight the availability of “the flying adventure” to the common man.

“By Air to South Africa or India in less than a week!” one ad boasted.

Flight magazine was the preferred publisher.

“All the way to India by Empire Flying-Boat,” another ad proclaimed.

The Armstrong Whitworth airplane was one of the most popular at the time. It came in two different models: the European and the Empire class (for longer excursions). The Empire class airplane could accommodate just 20 passengers if it was to be flown at night. It also had three flush toilets which, from what I can find, was basically flushed form the planet.

The airplanes were also focused more on comfort and cozyness, instead of entertainment, as you can see from the Imperial Airways lounge below.

London to Singapore—in Just 8 Days!

But as expensive and luxurious as it was, it was still quite a hassle to get from point A to point B – here’s a map of how Imperial passengers in 1934 could get from London to Singapore at a cost of £180 (about £10,900 or $17,600 when adjusted for inflation). Not that expensive though when you consider that passengers also had nearly everything included in this price (hotel accommodation, food, etc).

This particular 8,458 mile trek took 8 days and according to historian Lucy Budd, included stops in Paris, Brindisi, Athens, Alexandria, Cairo, Gaza, Baghdad, Basra, Kuwait, Bahrain, Sharjah, Gwadar, Karachi, Jodhpur, Delhi, Cawnpore, Allabad, Calcutta, Akgats, Rangoon, Bangkok and Alor Star.

Because it was so complicated and expensive to travel, companies aimed their efforts on the financially fortunate. In 1939, Imperial Airways hoped to assure passengers that such discomforts were well in the past:

“There is no need to wrap yourself up. All aeroplanes are heated and air-conditioned… and there is no need to worry about noise, for the walls are insulated, allowing conversation to be carried on in a normal voice.”

However, there were still plenty of issues. Passengers were forced to follow a hectic schedule, while planes stopped by the numerous checkpoints. Oftentimes, departures were at 5AM or other similar times. Also, people would also sometimes get sick, and bowls were discreetly placed under the seats to ensure that passengers had a place to throw up.

Aimed at the rich and famous, Imperial tried to make money while showing off the might of the British empire – an empire which it was unable to prevent from crumbling not long afterwards, even with the incredible reach it attained by the end of the 1930s. But, for better of for worse, Imperial Airways had done its mission: it brought the whole world close – a lot closer.

SourcesThe Growth of Aviation in Britain by Peter Fearon (1985); On being aeromobile: airline passengers and the affective experiences of flight by L. Budd (2007); Passenger traffic in the 1930s on British imperial air routes: refinement and revision by Gordon Pirie (2004); The Formative Years of the British Aircraft Industry, 1913-1924 by Peter Fearon (1969); Global Networks Before Globalisation: Imperial Airways and the Development of Long-Haul Air Routes by L. Budd (2007); Britain’s Internal Airways: The Pioneer Stage of the 1930’s by Derek H. Aldcroft (1964); The Air Route to Cape Town 1918-32 by Robert L. McCormack (1974); Airlines and Empires: Great Britain and the “Scramble for Africa,” 1919-1939 by Robert McCormack (1976); Australia Through the Prism of Qantas: Distance Makes a Comeback by Peter J. Rimmer (2005); Struggle for Prominence: Clashing Dutch and British Interests on the Colonial Air Routes, 1918-42 by Marc L. J. Dierikx (1991).

Images: All black and white photographs via Getty Images; Ad for Imperial Airways in the November 4, 1937 issue of Flight magazine; Ad for Imperial Airways in the December 2, 1937 issue of Flight magazine; Color cutaway illustration via Vintag.es; Color air travel map of London to Singapore by Michael Hession; Air schedule via Flickr; Imperial travel posters via theSmithsonian.

Inspired by PaleoFuture.

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