Avgeek Alert: The Evolution of the Airline Passenger Cabin


Commercial aviation has of course undergone countless improvements since the first flight – in 1911, with just eleven passengers – in the areas of safety, aesthetics, design, and more. So here´s an illuminating look back at how it all began, and where it´s all ended up. Enjoy!

The First Decades of the 20th Century

Today it´s almost impossible to imagine the experience of those very earliest aircraft passengers. These initial flights had almost no comforts nor amenities – for example, enclosed bathrooms didn´t exist until the 1940s! And one of the very first flights – piloted by pioneer Louis Blériot and carrying eleven people a grand total of five kilometres (three miles) –did not even have seats per se with passengers seated in open cabins. Then in 1919 the first all-metal airplane, the Junkers F13, went into service, featuring not just seats (finally) but also a heating system.

In the early years, commercial aircraft typically carried no more than 20 passengers, and reached cruising altitudes of around 900 metres (about 2,950 feet), as opposed to today´s altitudes of 10,000 to 12,000m (32,800-39,370 ft.). And since air resistance is much greater flying so low, at first flying – at 160km (99 miles) an hours – was actually slower than travelling by train.

Furthermore, as these metal aircraft were not adequately insulated, the friction with the wind made the experience tremendously. And finally, the passenger areas were not yet pressurised – which in any case wasn´t needed because of the low cruising altitudes.

Passenger Cabin Improvements During the 1930s

This was decisive in this and various other areas of aviation (and by the way, Iberia had been born shortly before it began, in 1927). For example, cabin pressurisation started to be implemented; the first onboard kitchen facilities were installed; and stewards and stewardesses (which today of course we call flight attendants) became common (and by the way, at first they were largely male).

Other improvements: cabins were soundproofed, passengers could sit on upholstered seats instead of the earlier wicker seats; and heating became a common feature. In addition, cruising altitude were boosted to 4,000m (around 13,120 ft.) and speeds doubled – which reduced not just flight times but also, thankfully, turbulence.

The 1940s and World War II

The history of commercial aviation cannot be understood without the Second World War (nor, for that matter, the World War I), since during this conflict military aviation developed technology which was later extended to the civilian sector. Fuselages, structures and cabins alike underwent improvements, as well as the creation of landing strips for commercial flights and new airports much closer to major cities.

The Glamour of Flying

During the 1950s, flying stopped being an experience for the most curious and daring   and started to become the epitome of luxury and chic (and of course it was only accessible to the well-heeled – something that would start changing a few years later), with for example real banquets on board and ample room to spread out (because there were fewer passengers, since relatively few people could afford to fly). At the same time, security measures were almost nonexistent, and it enough to have a boarding pass to get on a plane – no identification or anything.

Over the course of the next decade, getting on a plane began to get increasingly common for the larger public, and the concept of tourist class – until then non-existent – became popular. Fares started dropping – expanding the ability to fly to more people – and at the same time passenger cabins were made increasingly more comfortable (yet simultaneously less luxurious).

Airlines Start to Get Serious About Security

Until the beginning of the 1970s, there were really no security protocols to speak of – very unlike today´s situation,  with the various standards and recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Fares became even further democratised, Yet aircraft still carried fewer passengers and therefore had more space for amenities such as bars (especially on long-haul aircraft such as Boeing 747s).

The 1990s: Smoking Is Finally Banned

It was only toward the end of this decade when airlines finally started prohibiting lighting up on board – first on short-haul routes, then on the rest. (And by the way, “low-cost” flights and airlines had yet to exist – the only way to get bargains was to book last-minute or accede to various flight-itinerary legs.)

The 21st Century: Security Ramps Up Radically

In the wake of the terrorist destruction of New York City´s World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, much stricter safety measures were put into place to protect aircraft and their passengers – most visibly preflight screening in airports as well as restrictions on what can be carried aboard in hand luggage (such as bans on liquids past a certain volume, sharp objects, and so forth).

On the plus side, inflight entertainment saw radical improvements in terms of both technology such as individual seat-back screens – in many cases touch-operated – and offerings including much wider and more current selections of movies, TV shows, music, and games.