Home Travel Flying Like It’s 1986: 3 Ways Technology and Trends Have Changed the In-Flight Experience

Flying Like It’s 1986: 3 Ways Technology and Trends Have Changed the In-Flight Experience

by Bill Conn


It’s hard to remember what it was like to fly in 1986 for those of us old enough to have been there.

Or maybe you’re a millennial who never experienced the joy of traveling on a domestic or international flight in the 1980s. While things weren’t as different then as they were during the Golden Age of air travel in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they would definitely be unrecognizable to any modern airline passenger. For the healthy traveler focused on
convenience and efficiency, this evolution is a mixed bag of good and bad. Some things are much better, and others are, well… not quite as much fun as they used to be.

So park your DeLorean, cue up the Duran Duran, and take a look how technology and social trends have changed our experiences in and around airplanes since 1986.

You Could Smoke

“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!”

Smoking on airplanes was still legal in 1986. While there were smoking and non-smoking sections on the plane, those designations did little to alter the laws of physics. You were still breathing the same recirculated, smoky air in the non-smoking section. Not a great situation for the health-conscious traveler.

The ban on smoking was a tug of war between the FAA and the tobacco industry for many years. Political activist and consumer advocate Ralph Nader filed the first petition with the U.S. Transportation Department in 1969 to ban smoking on flights. However, it wasn’t until 1984 that a ban was finally enacted, only to be repealed later that same year. In 1988, smoking was banned on all domestic flights under 2 hours; in 1990 on all domestic flights of 6 hours or less (pilots could still smoke!); and in 2000 smoking become illegal on all international and domestic flights.

Today, even new technology can’t help our smoking brethren. Electronic cigarettes were banned by the US Department of Transportation in 2015. An additional sign of the times is the fact that many former “no smoking” signs throughout the cabin are being converted to signs about switching off electronic devices.

Curious about why there are still ashtrays in the lavatories? It’s a federal law that all planes must still have an operational ashtray to avoid fire safety issues in case someone sneaks a cig.

In-Flight Entertainment Was One-Size-Fits-All

Options for entertainment on flights in 1986 were pretty limited. Just the year before, Avicom introduced the first personal audio player to passengers, which offered access to a handful of pre-record music channels. On newer wide-body aircraft like the Boeing 767, passengers could watch a movie on a CRT-projector. However, there typically was only one screen per cabin, so you were out of luck if you didn’t like the pre-selected movie or were stuck behind the 6-and-a-half foot tall giant sitting in front of you.

Modern in-flight entertainment options are virtually limitless. With the emergence of technological advances on the aircraft – such as on-demand movies, TV shows, games, and in-flight connectivity through services like Gogo – a world of entertainment options are at your fingertips at 30,000 feet. Technological advances keep coming, such as a new 22-inch, 3.1 million pixel display that potentially could be coming to a seat-back near you in the future.

Media consumption among passengers is radically different as well, according to SITA On Air. Among those who watched a film on their most recent flight:

  • 44% used only the seat-back screen
  • 46% used their own device exclusively
  • 10% switched between the seat-back and their own device

Expectations are that in the near future, 65% of passengers will use their own devices exclusively.

Security Was Easy, But You Still Waited Around

In 1986, you breezed through the one metal detector at the airport. After that, you pretty much had free rein of the entire airport. Additionally, your loved ones could go to your gate – without a ticket – to give you a tearful send-off or a warm welcome home.

Kids received special treatment too. In 1986 it was common to see the littlest passengers getting a quick tour of the aircraft cockpit and a hearty handshake from the pilot and co-pilot.

However, there was still a lot of waiting around to do, but it wasn’t in security lines. Before the dawn of smartphones with mobile apps and websites that tracked flights, there was no easy way to know whether a flight was on time or delayed. That means if a family member planned to pick you up at the airport, they showed up at the designated time and waited around – sometimes for hours – if your plane was delayed.

Today, cell phones and cell phone lots mitigate a lot of that kind of waiting. And if you ask the flight attendant nicely, he or she usually still has a secret stash of wing pins to make your little one feel like a seasoned traveler and future pilot.

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