Modern-day air travel versus 1974: Packed in like cattle, but the mileage is better

If you want to find quick sympathy in Canada in January, you can complain about one of two things: the weather, or the airlines.

“Long-time air traveller Guilford Boyce says he misses the golden age of travel, when airlines went out of their way to make passengers feel special,” a Jan. 2 CTV News report noted, in a web article titled “Passengers lament ‘nickel-and-dime’ fees as airlines face thin profit margins”.

“Boyce says things have changed in the last few decades, to the point where he feels more like livestock every time he gets on a flight.”

Indeed, the days when airlines promoted themselves on the basis of their service — at least in Economy Class — are gone. To the extent that they still do compete on service, it’s usually in their expensive premium cabins.

But if we, the traveling public, are getting less pampered in our close-together Economy seats, at least we can claim that we are getting better mileage out of our dollars.

A web site called Departed Flights has posted a collection of image scans from old airline timetables. One of the more interesting scans is the Winnipeg page from a Northwest Orient timetable published in December, 1974. The Twin Cities-based airline, which dropped the “Orient” part of its name in the ‘80s and was absorbed into Delta Air Lines some seven years ago, published its each-way fares in its timetables.

This was possible at the time given that air fares were government-regulated, and set at fixed prices proportional to distance, even if these prices were at odds with supply and demand.

And those fares were usually eye-wateringly expensive by today’s standards.

Keen to get away from Winnipeg’s winter cold to someplace warmer, like California? A 1974 round-trip to Los Angeles or San Francisco would have set you back $290 Cdn. — or $1,366 in 2016 dollars. A round-trip to Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., meanwhile, would have cost the equivalent of $1,281 in 2016 dollars.

Currently, July 2017 round-trips between Winnipeg and both Florida and California are priced in the $700 to $800 range.

The only fare that is more expensive today than it was in 1974, after adjustment for inflation: the relatively short trips to Minneapolis/St. Paul and to Chicago; and presumably to Grand Forks.

 

Winnipeg to… 1974 one-way fare (CAD) 1974 round-trip fare 1974 fare in 2016 dollars Typical mid-week July 2017 fares as of Jan. 8, 2017 (CAD) 1974 fare would now pay for a round-trip to…
Boston $125 $250 $1,178 $340 London
Chicago $70.35 $140.70 $663 $699 Seattle
Grand Forks, N.D. $22.05 $44.10 $208 Not bookable, despite Delta serving both cities via MSP. Google Flights lists “travel agent” fares from $900 and up.
Los Angeles $145 $290 $1,366 $706 Honolulu
Miami $148 $296 $1,394 $751 Madrid
Minneapolis/St. Paul $46.20 $92.40 $435 $597 Montreal
New York City $111 $222 $1,046 $396 Shanghai
San Francisco $145 $290 $1,366 $760 Hong Kong
Tampa/St. Petersburg $136 $272 $1,281 $748 Lima

It’s also instructive to observe how much further one can go for the same amount of money in 2017 compared to 1974. The same amount that one would have needed to fly to New York City and back in 1974 — $222, equivalent to $1,046 in 2016 — would pay for a round-trip to Shanghai thanks to the current trans-Pacific fare wars.

As for that 1974 $296 round-trip fare to Miami — equivalent to $1,366 in 2016 dollars: Today, the same amount would pay for a round-trip journey to Madrid. And the $250 you would have spent in 1974 to go to Boston — $1,178 in 2016 dollars? That would get you to London and back today.

So, while passengers might be packed in closer together than ever, less fed and less pampered, today is still arguably the golden age of international travel. Never have so many been able to travel so many miles at such a low cost.