Remember the Smoking Section? 15 Ways Flying Was Totally Different in the '80s


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Matt Meltzer

At some point, you’ve been on a flight sitting next to some guy born before the NFL merger who’s rambling on about “the golden age of flying,” and how people used to wear tuxedos and evening gowns and eat filet and lobster on flights to Buffalo. And then about the time you stopped listening to him and told the flight attendant, “No thanks, you would not like the whole can of Sam’s Choice Cola,” you realized that you could probably go on a similar rant, if only some teenager would steal the old man’s seat when he went to the bathroom.

And, sure, that teenager probably wouldn’t take off his Beats, but if he did… here are 15 things you could tell him about air travel in what you lovingly refer to as the “good old days.”

You could smoke

Yes, there was a “non-smoking section”, but whoever designed it forgot the laws of physics. Shockingly, smoke moved about the cabin as if the captain just turned off the fasten seatbelt light, and you typically exited a two-hour flight smelling like you’d spent the night in a dive bar.

airplane food
airplane food

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There were meals

They weren’t good meals, mind you, but it was food. You could typically expect a soggy croissant with rubbery turkey and some wilted vegetables, or roughly what they’ve been serving at Subway since the advent of the $5 foot long. But at least you didn’t have to sit next to the guy who brought Panda Express’ extra-spicy shrimp curry on board, nor did you have to stock up on Combos at the newsstand for a cross-country flight.

Music was only available through in-flight radio or your Walkman

Which meant the decision about which Motley Crue tape to bring was especially crucial. Or, accidentally grab your “Long Lonely Summer” mix from three years ago, and you could’ve been stuck listening to the same 14 Adult Contemporary songs on a fake “radio station” hosted by John Tesh.

Related: 21 Questions You Shouldn’t Ask Your Flight Attendant

air traffic control
air traffic control

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There was no Internet to buy tickets

If you wanted to book a flight, you either had to call the airline, go to their office, or call a travel agent. If you tried to comparison shop while at said office, you were basically the equivalent of the guy who gets to the front of the line at Taco Bell and asks questions about every ingredient in a chalupa.

You showed up 20 minutes before your flight, and got on

Airport security in the ’80s was like stadium security today, but faster! And it smelled a lot better too, since everyone could leave their shoes on.


Credit: Flickr/jbcurio

You had to pre-arrange your meeting time and place

Because there were no cell phones. And if you weren’t EXACTLY sure where “outside baggage claim 4, by the Marlboro ad” was, you got the momentary celebrity of getting paged over the airport loudspeaker. Which is why usually…

People met you at the gate

And though occasionally awesome, it was usually cripplingly embarrassing. Especially when Mom made a giant “Welcome Home” sign on your first trip back from college and showed up with the high school girlfriend you forgot you still had.


Credit: Flickr/Jack Lyons

Unlimited checked bags, FO’ FREE

Airplanes actually had overhead space and legroom, because people weren’t trying to pack their entire spring semester’s wardrobe into a carry-on. Many airlines didn’t limit the number of bags you could take, and even the ones that did typically allowed at least two.

Related: Confessions of a Fed Up Flight Attendant: The Absolute Worst People on the Plane

No automated check-in

It’s amazing how now we push seven buttons, and we’re checked into our flight; we even get a boarding pass and baggage tag. In the ’80s, it took the airline desk agent 14,000 VERY loud key strokes on an IBM the size of an anvil just to find your reservation.


Credit: Flickr/Austrian Airlines

You needed ACTUAL tickets to board your flight

And the gut-punch you got when you arrived at the airport and realized you’d left them at home was worse than the feeling of forgetting to bring cash to a strip club.

You could bring whatever you wanted on planes

A few bottles of wine from France? Sure. A gallon of vodka from Russia? Absolutely! Some Ginsu knives you received for looking at a beach timeshare? No problem! Did this lead to the occasional booze-fueled knife fight? Probably. But there was no Twitter back then, so airlines were actually able to keep it quiet.


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

You got one movie. If you were lucky.

And it cost $7 to rent headphones to hear it. Typically, it was something starring Cory Feldman/Haim/both that showed on one screen and was “Edited for Airline Use,” which led to an entire generation of children thinking the most famous line from Die Hard was “Yippee ki-yay, motorfinger”.

Airports had lockers

Even though your carry-on wasn’t that heavy, it was still nice to put it away if you decided to explore a city during your layover. And since getting back through security wasn’t a bigger procedure than making polenta, coming and going to the terminal didn’t take much time.


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Airport food sucked

You ever been to one of those crappy regional airports where your only choices for pre-flight food are roller hot dogs and a sad, lonely SuperPretzel? That was EVERY AIRPORT IN AMERICA, and the first time you saw a Little Caesars during a layover in Detroit it blew your freaking mind.

Related: Spirit Airlines Embraces its Haters with a Survey and Hilarious Video

Flights cost more. A LOT more

According to the Wall Street Journal, the average round-trip domestic ticket in 1980 cost $592.55. Even with bag fees, water fees, oxygen fees and whatever other fee Spirit charges, the average cost in 2010 was $337.97. The moral of that story: you get what you pay for.

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The 20 Worst People On Every Airplane

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