The fact is, during the early days of commercial aviation, pretty much all passenger flights were the equivalent of first class. Flying was too expensive — and too rare — to deliver anything less. (Can we feel nostalgic for something we weren’t even alive to experience?)
While today’s VIP travel experience may offer amenities people in the past wouldn’t have even imagined — such as red carpet boarding — modern airlines seem most obsessed with squeezing in as many people as possible on every flight.
Today’s seats are narrower and offer less legroom than ever before, and open areas and wide aisles are increasingly rare even for top-tier travelers. For comparison, above is a marketing photo for a living room-like 747 first class area in the 1970s. Compare it to a Boeing 777 jet’s first class cabin in 2015:
Whether or not today’s most elite commercial airline cabins compare favorably with those of the past, we invite you to join us as we navigate through the fascinating history of vintage first class flights in photos.
This visual tour not only highlights the elegance and extravagance of the past, but also reflects a bygone era when the flight itself was a significant part of the adventure.
First class flights in the 1950s
The first stop on our journey is the 1950s, when commercial aviation really started taking off.
On first class flights, the adventure actually began on the ground — with passengers receiving VIP treatment even before boarding. Imagine being escorted to a private lounge, complete with plush seats, cocktails, and a personal assistant to ensure a smooth journey.
On board, the experience was no less glamorous. The interiors echoed the style of a posh hotel, with spacious cabins, reclining sleeper seats, and curtains on the windows. The stewardesses, often dressed in designer uniforms, were more like personal attendants, catering to every need of the passengers.
What flying first class was like in the 1960s
As we take off into the 1960s, the era of the Jet Set, first-class air travel grew even more luxurious. Airlines began competing not only on speed and safety but also on opulence and comfort.
Gourmet meals were served on fine china, complemented by a selection of top-tier wines and champagnes. In-flight entertainment wasn’t just a screen in front of you — it could also mean live music, fashion shows, conversation-friendly seating around a table, and even onboard lounges where passengers could socialize.
First class flights in the 1970s
The 1970s marked the peak of first-class indulgence. “Sleeperettes” — which could convert into flat beds — became standard. Some airlines even introduced separate compartments offering privacy and exclusivity, much like today’s first-class suites.
Despite the economic turmoil of the time, airlines continued to push the envelope, striving to deliver an unforgettable experience to their premium passengers.
This is also the decade when the huge Boeing 747 plane was introduced, which offered more space than any other commercial plane up to that time. (See more about the 747’s debut and specs here.)
Flying first class in the 1980s
The 1980s was the era of deregulation in the airline industry. This led to increased competition, encouraging airlines to offer distinctive experiences to attract high-paying customers.
In-flight services were enhanced with the introduction of personal entertainment systems, enabling passengers to watch movies or listen to music in their seats. Airlines also started emphasizing the quality of food and beverages, sometimes even hiring renowned chefs to create gourmet menus for the passengers of first-class flights.
The biggest changes, however, arrived with the advent of new technology and the shifting focus toward privacy and personal space. Airlines began offering VIP amenities like lie-flat seats, personal suites, and even double beds. The notion of “flying hotels” started to take shape in first class, with airlines like Singapore Airlines and Emirates leading the way.
See seating on first class flights back in the day
Vintage First Class Boeing 747 interior preview from 1969-1970
American’s 707 B LuxuryJet First Class flight (1972)
Airbus’ colorful first class cabin seating (1980)
Continental Airlines DC-10 Pub flights (late 1970s)
American Airlines 747 Astroliner diagram from 1970
First-class lounges, upstairs or downstairs
American Airlines’ first class lounge
1970s upstairs airplane lounge for VIP passengers
Vintage First class airline meal prep and lounge (1970)
The 70s cocktail lounge party room
An airplane lounge that never really took off: This vintage 1970s airplane cocktail lounge seating concept mockup was located downstairs on a 747 jumbo jet.
Meals and food served on vintage first class flights
TWA Ambassador Service first class seats and meals (1971)
Pan Am’s international cuisine, served individually or at a table for two (1979)
1970s first class airline meal cart (1970s)
Retro 70s plane lounge with rolling snack cart
1970s/1980s sleeping arrangements on first class flights
First class in the 60s, before sleeper seats
Here are singers and entertainers Sonny and Cher flying in 1966. Looks comfortable, right?
Vintage Japan Airlines 747 upstairs sleeping berths for first class passengers (1978)
Pan Am’s first class seats – Sleeperette on 747s (1980)
Philippine Airlines First Class full-length upstairs Sky-Bed (1983)
TWA’s first class Sleeper-Seats (1983)
Only TWA has First Class Sleeper-Seats on every widebody. For First Class comfort… They are available on every 747, every L-1011, and every 767, everywhere we fly in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. So you can rest easy every time you fly TWA. Just settle into a Sleeper-Seat, and you’ll be impressed with its incredible comfort and legroom. Then settle back — the seat stretches out with you.
TWA’s Royal Ambassador Service is available on every transatlantic and trans-continental route we fly, as well as selected shorter domestic flights. We offer a gourmet menu with a choice of entrees like Chateaubriand. Vintage wines from California and France. A selection of fine liqueurs and cognac. All cordially offered to you in a warm, personal manner.
We even cater to your needs before you take off. In major airports, you’ll find a special First Class desk to speed you through check-in. And a special lounge for transatlantic passengers to relax in before flight time. So call your travel agent, corporate travel department, or TWA. Because for First Class service that’s second to none, there’s only one choice. TWA. You’re going to like us.
Malaysian Airline System’s spacious first class seats (1986)
The history of first-class flights from the 1940s to the 1960s
It’s easy to fly! Airlines from the 1940s
1. So you’re going to fly this trip! That’s fine! See how easy it is. Just phone your travel agent, any airline or telegraph office. Where to? When? The name? Yes, ma’am. Your reservation’s made.
2. Surprise! Your ticket costs much less than you’d think! And there is no tipping. No charge for meals en route. None of those many little extras that ordinarily make travel so expensive!
3. From your hotel or the airline ticket office, a limousine whisks you comfortably to the airport. Luggage? Checked through — returned to you at your destination. No handling. No worries.
4. You step from your car to the waiting airliner. My, it looks big. It is — and roomy! The sky beckons. You board. You’re off! You’re a mile high on effortless wings before you know it!
5. You lounge back in your big armchair. How quiet it is — how clean and snug and restful. The colorful map flows smoothly beneath you. You read — play games — or dream. Peacefully!
6. Mealtime aloft. A trim, trained stewardess or steward serves you a delicious, hot, complimentary meal. Such delightful dining — each course “just what you like.” Food never tasted so good!
7. Bedtime. Great skysleepers are standard equipment on many overnight flights. Your berth is twin-bed size! A mattress soft as moonlight. A lullaby of stars. Such deep, dreamless sleep!
8. And there you are — rested, clean, refreshed, exhilarated — at your destination. No matter where you live or where you want to go, you can be there in hours, overnight at the most — if you fly.
You’re in a roomy “home in the sky” when you fly United Air Lines (1953)
That right-at-home feeling you have on United… (1954)
You soon realize you’re an honored guest, not just a passenger! Friendly, attentive service is one reason why. Another is the extra concern for your comfort that’s evident in the roomy, restful accommodations on all Mainliners.
On First Class flights — for example, on 365-m.p.h. DC-7 Mainliners, coast-to-coast — you enjoy the finest in travel luxury and spaciousness. Air Coach Mainliners, too, feature seats only 2 abreast, and wide aisles for added walk-around freedom. So extra comfort is yours with any Mainliner ticket you buy — along with the speed. the cleanliness, the economy of air travel at its best!
PAA – Pan Am Airways first class flights from the 50s (1956)
50s Red Carpet service for first-class flights on United (1956)
Vintage 50s Delta Air Lines first class meals (1959)
Folks who discover Delta’s Royal Service are eager to tell friends about the sparkle of a dinner that is leisurely, with complimentary champagne and three alert stewardesses in attendance…
Pan Am airlines – vintage first class airplane lounge seats (1959)
Halfway to Europe between cocktails and coffee: Don’t plan to catch up on your reading. There’s too much to take in — too much to talk about on your first Jet Clipper flight.
While the stewardess removed the last cordial glass from your dinner table, she reminds you to set your watch five hours ahead, and tells you that there’s barely enough time to finish a chapter before you see the lights of London… Pan Am is increasing its schedules to include as many as four Jet flights a day to Europe — with deluxe President Special service available on every one.
Luxury flying on a Douglas DC-8 jet in the 50s (1959)
Stewardesses call it… (and so will you) “The world’s most luxurious jetliner!”
Airline stewardesses, always concerned with your comfort aloft, have been well-trained in the Douglas DC-8 Jetliner, going into regular service this month. They vote it the world’s most luxurious airliner — and so will you!
“Lounges like private clubs!” “Wide aisles!” “Everything is big!” These are typical comments. On your first DC-8 flight, you will see, too, the many unusual Douglas touches. Restful, over-the-shoulder lighting, built right into your seat! Service buttons right at hand. A real table — not a tray — that springs into position at a finger’s flick.
And in the DC-8 you’ll enjoy that long-famous feature of all Douglas aircraft—peace of mind. One DC-8 flight and you’ll agree with your stewardess — “It’s the world’s most luxurious jetliner!”
Delta Air Lines first class flights: Extra hands assure extra luxuries (1959)
Not two, but three alert stewardesses assure you of every attention in the brief span of a Delta Royal Service Flight.
So linger over your luncheon or dinner with its complimentary champagne and choice of entree (tenderloin steak to order, Rock Cornish hen, or seafood on appropriate days). There’s also music by Muzak, fast baggage handling and beverage service for the discerning passengers who specify these luxurious flights.
In-flight movies were a big deal on first class flights in the 60s
Appetizers offered on vintage Delta first class flights (1967)
Delta Airlines first class flights feature vintage wide aisles and stewardess hostess service (1960s-1970s)
January 1, 1969: Northeast Airlines addresses itself to the whole man.
Our philosophy is a simple one: By making each part of you comfortable, we make all of you comfortable.
And we start right at the top, with your head. Instead of the usual airline mini-pillow, we give you a big fluffy pillow, so when you lean back your head sinks into something soft. That way your head relaxes and your neck relaxes, which is the beginning of you relaxing.
When it comes to comfort, we’re mindful of your mind. We didn’t have to be Freud to know we can’t relax your body until we relax your mind.
So on the premise that beautiful thoughts are relaxing thoughts, we have some of the world’s most beautiful magazines: Domus, the Italian design magazine and Realites, the French cultural magazine, to name just two. Of course, if just plain thinking relaxes you, we have Commentary, Atlantic Monthly and the weekly news magazines.
The furry wrap you wear on the plane. Furs are very warm, very luxurious and very cozy. Our furry throws are designed to make you feel all those things. For as we all know, a warm, cozy, luxurious body is necessary to warm, cozy, luxurious legs, heads, hands and feet.
The all-steak airline to Florida. Last year, when we introduced steak broiled on the plane to Florida, you had to fly with us to get it. This year, you still have to fly with us to get it. Every lunch and dinner, we serve it to everyone, first class and economy.
It’s true, you can get steak on other airlines to Florida. And although it’s nice to be imitated, what they call steak we don’t call steak. What they serve is cooked the way airline food has always been cooked: on the ground an hour before it’s put on the plan. If that can satisfy your stomach, you don’t need us.
If you’re big enough to go to Florida, you’re big enough for full-sized silverware. While we make your stomach happy with our freshly broiled steak we make your hands happy with our full-sized silverware. Mini-silver, like mini-pillows, seems ridiculously out of date on today’s modem roomy jets. Not to mention ridiculously hard to use.
When we take off for Florida, take off your shoes. This year, we give you travel slippers to slip on as your shoes come off. On ourYellowbirds, you can sit back, spread your toes, and shed one of the great burdens of civilization.
NOW SEE THIS: How the Boeing 747 jumbo jet made history