Has anyone seen this very interesting article concerning international air travel in the 1930’s? (Hat tip to Glenn.)
The adverts stress the extreme luxury that air passengers experienced at the time. Although I have little doubt that the level of service depicted was reserved for the most expensive of fares, and that there were cheaper options available, it does seem to show a level of pampering that only a present day billionaire with a private jet could match.
The range of those old prop-driven planes was rather feeble by the standards of today, so direct flights over great distances was impossible. The strategy was to have a great many stops along the way, with long layovers where the passengers would have to schedule lodgings and meals outside of the airlines. That is why travel agencies were essential back in the day, while today anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can plan their own itinerary.
An example is shown in the article, where a map from 1934 shows how a passenger could travel from London to Singapore in 8 days.
The trip consisted of 22 separate flights. A travel agency wasn’t necessary, as everything except alcohol was included in the price. Adjusted for inflation, that was $17,600 USD.
That got me to wondering. How much would it cost to make the same first class trip today, stopping in the same places?
Well, it is pretty much impossible to say for sure. I scoured the Internet for some hours, trying to find the prices for all of those flights, but had a very hard time of it. The much greater range of modern commercial aircraft means that many direct flights of such short duration are simply no longer necessary. And, considering how little time is spent in the air for many of these brief hops, no first class service is offered.
Still, I think I can get a ballpark figure. Near as I can tell, using a great deal of no-doubt shaky guesswork, it would cost at least $20,000 USD to get a similar level of service for the same route, with the same number of stops. And that is just the air fare, without any hotel rooms or extra meals included.* So why the higher price?
Air travel back in the 1930’s was a developing technology, something that was little more than ten yeas old by the end of the decade. New technology costs more, as bugs are worked out and new products appear on the market. Although a modern commercial airplane might be decades old and still going strong, the planes back then were practically factory fresh. Yet, even though those old planes could only haul a fraction of the bodies, the airlines could still afford to operate them at this price point, and upgrade their fleet every few years when better aircraft were developed.
I think the main reason is that airlines back then were heavily subsidized, more a propaganda exercise by the government than actual commercial concern. One doesn’t need to turn a profit when propped up by tax money, after all.
Or perhaps the higher prices for present day air travelers are due to the fact that first class passengers are allowed to drink all the alcohol they want for free. Hey, champagne and fancy whiskey isn’t cheap, you know!
*(I was informed that modern day first class air travelers are usually treated to complimentary buffets in exclusive lounges maintained by the airline, so meal taken off the airport grounds are not necessary. I didn’t know because I have only flown a few times in my life, and that was always in the cheap seats.)