10 Things Kids Today Would Never Believe About Flying in the 1980s

Posted on
May 23, 2012

As a kid, I wanted the window seat. Now I prefer the aisle, so I can get up to pee.

There are days when I feel far older than my 31 years (Wait, am I 31? What year is it …? No, I’m still 31. Dear god. Losing track of my age is not a problem I used to have). When something happens that makes me realize that I have been on the planet for three long decades, and then some.

Take, for example, the time I had the following exchange (via Google chat) with my brother-in-law, who is 10 years my junior:


Me: … it must have been around the time River Phoenix died.

Him: River Phoenix?

Me: Oh, dear god, no. Don’t. Just don’t.

Him: Who’s River Phoenix?

Me: NO. You can’t actually not know.

Him: Wait … is he related to Joaquin?


Him: Hold on, I’m looking him up … Okay, you can’t get mad at me for not knowing who he was. I was, like, three years old when he died.



I know. It’s just horrifying. The kid was born in the nineties and is able to drink. It’s enough to make you curl up and weep for your lost youth, the untimely death of poor River, and the cancellation of Pete and Pete. And it makes you realize how many of the immutable pillars of your childhood mean nothing to younger generations.

When it comes to flying, where the rules change every time some idiot tries to bring down a 747 by hiding C-4 in his underwear, this is particularly true. Traveling in planes today is not what it was when I was a child. Here are some of the things I remember from air travel during the 80s and 90s that will sound utterly shocking to younger generations:

  1. There were tiny pre-wrapped soaps. I suppose it was simply a sign of more careless, excessive times: in the 80s and earlier, airplane bathrooms were stocked with individually packaged miniature soaps. I remember loving these, and would hoard them in my carry-on (I don’t know why I did this. There was never a soap shortage at my house, from which I could save my family by showing them my hidden stash, and be hailed a hero). Eventually, I guess the waste became costly: every person who used the bathroom would grab a soap, unwrap it, use it, and toss it. Now most planes have soap dispensers. Certainly less charming, but a hell of a lot-more eco-friendly.
  2. Airplane food was bad. And I mean really bad. These days, I’m never that fazed by airplane food, because it is SO MUCH BETTER NOW THAN IT WAS.

    Believe me when I say that this is a serious improvement.

    I remember once, when I was six years old, peeling the tin foil back from my meal and seeing an orange hemisphere floating around in dark brown sauce.

    “What is this?” I asked my brother.

    “A peach.”

    “Yeah, but what’s it in?”

    “Gravy.”Dear god, I kid you not: there was a peach FLOATING IN GRAVY. Twenty-five years later, that venture into culinary purgatory still haunts me. (Granted, most airlines don’t even serve food nowadays, but I still think that’s an improvement. At least they aren’t scarring people for life.)

  3. There was a smoking section. ON THE PLANE. Which, of course, was right next to the NON-SMOKING SECTION. And wouldn’t you know it, that pesky smoke would never stay on its half of the plane.
  4. There were pillows and blankets everywhere. Seriously, economy class looked like a harem. Sometime in the last few decades, though, I think someone finally realized that no one was washing the damn things, and that the blankets were harboring diseases that pre-dated manned flight. So we bid adieu to pillows and throws along with the illusion of comfort. On the plus side, we substantially reduced our chances of dying of consumption.
  5. You weren’t charged for extra luggage. Or, at the very least, it was rare. I remember, on my trip during my youth, traveling with approximately seven carry-ons.

    Pssh. In my day, I had three times this much luggage.

    Another time, I boarded a plane with a Rubbermaid tub that vaguely resembled, in both shape and dimensions, a coffin (I swear it wasn’t even considered oversized). And I met a guy who told me that when he left for college (some 20 years ago), he was told by one agent that his bag was too big and he couldn’t take it. So he said okay, walked down a ways, and plopped it on the conveyor belt with no problem. I don’t know how these things happened. But they did.

  6. We kept our shoes on. It’s true, kids: we really did. And our belts. And if we set off the metal detector, we simply removed the offending item, plopped it on the x-ray machine, and went through the metal detector again. No pat-downs. No weird blue naked images viewed by a lonely, underpaid TSA worker. Nope. You might have a metal-detecting wand waved over some of your squishier parts, but that was it.
  7. There was one movie, and to watch it, you had to buy headphones. When I was a child, the price sounded astronomical – something like $3 a person – so we’d never end up getting the ear buds. We’d just crane our necks in an attempt to see the one screen near the front of the plane, and try to discern the plot by failed attempts at lip-reading. Nowadays, on international flights I have my own screen.

    Sure, it’s great, but where is the poetry? Where is the hardship that made us appreciate existence? Sometimes I watch the screen without headphones on so I can remember what it feels like to be alive.
  8. The airlines would hand out medicine. Just tell the flight attendant (or, as we called them back then, stewardesses and stewards, the latter of which was a rare sight) you had a headache, and you’d get tiny little packages of Tylenol in return. It stopped sometime in the late 80s, when someone realized the practice was expensive and highly litigious.
  9. You had to call to book a ticket. That’s right: you had to speak to an actual person. Comparing prices required making SEVERAL telephone calls. And then – get this – you’d have to go to the airport to pick up your ticket, or have it mailed to you (really, kids, I’m not making this up). Once, I nearly missed a flight because the airline mailed my ticket late. I finally got it, a few hours before we were supposed to leave. And – wait for it – THIS WAS IN 2005. YEAH.

  10. You could pack whatever the heck you wanted. A friend came to visit me sometime in the late 90s. After he disembarked, he was having trouble undoing his bag, which he’d secured with twine. So he reached into his carry-on and PULLED OUT A THREE-INCH-BLADE WITH WHICH HE CUT THE string. He then stared at his knife and remarked, “It’s kind of weird that they let me travel with that, huh?”

    And, oh, the liquids in our bags were plentiful. Our carry-ons sloshes and splashed with all the  shampoos and lotions and soaps we had in there, in quantities far exceeding 3 ounces.

Sigh. Those were the good old days. When flights included a little plastic pair of aviator wings that would inevitably poke you in the finger. When you could take whatever you wanted on a plane with you.  When you could hoard tiny soaps to your heart’s content.

Don’t leave me floating on a cloud of nostalgia by myself. What memories do you have about flying that would seem absolutely foreign to kids today?

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