Come fly with me - the Arab world and the golden age of air travel

New airlines such as Gulf Air offered five-star luxury in the skies

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Airlines like Emirates and Etihad are often said to have inspired a second golden age of air travel with new standards of passenger comfort.

But what of the original “golden age”, when flying meant wearing your best clothes, enjoying a three-course meal and perhaps relaxing with a fine cigar?

This was the 1950s and ‘60s, when long-distance travel to exotic destinations was for the privileged few, and before budget airlines brought flying to the masses.

The fog of cigarette smoke aside, the first passenger jets of the 1950s and ‘60s could be incredibly noisy by today’s standards – and there were no noise-cancelling headphones – or any in-flight entertainment of any kind

It was the age of glamorous stewardesses and dashing pilots. An age where new jet aircraft brought places that were once weeks away by ship to just a few hours in a pressurised cabin.

It transformed travel in the Arabian Gulf, once just a refuelling stop for the old propeller-driven giants of Imperial Airways on their way to India and Australia, but now a destination of its own right, thanks to oil revenues that drove a surge of investment and capital in the region.

By the 1960s places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai had built airports and runways capable of handling the biggest long-haul passenger aircraft, and airlines competed to win their slice of this valuable traffic.

To the established kings of the air like TWA, BOAC and Air France came a new challenge as new airlines in the region set out to create their own distinct national style.

Gulf Aviation had been formed by Freddie Bosworth, a former Royal Air Force pilot, in 1949. Flying small twin-engine propeller aircraft like the de Havilland Dove, it operated out of Bahrain with charters for the oil industry and short haul hops within the Arabian Gulf.

In 1973, control of the airline passed to Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Qatar after their rulers bought out a large stake previously owned by BOAC.

Rebranded Gulf Air, it became the national flag carrier for the four countries, expanding routes to Europe, Asia and the Far East with the new Lockheed Tri-Star and Boeing 737 jets.

Billing itself as “the world’s five-star airline”, Gulf Air offered new standards of luxury on its “Golden Falcon” service, with restaurant-style dining at tables for four, sumptuously decorated cabins and even on-board telephones.

Middle East Airlines cabin crew in front of Boeing 707-300. Photo: Middle East Airlines – Air Liban

Its biggest competitors in the region were Egyptair, which had been flying under various names since 1936, Royal Jordanian, which began to expand international during the 1960s, and Middle East Airlines (MEA).

Founded in 1945, the Beirut-based MEA had several international stakeholders, including Pan-Am, BOAC and Air France. From a handful of short-haul routes, MEA rose to the 16th largest airline by the mid-1960s.

According to Time magazine, “it reported record 1963 revenues of $70 million and earnings of more than $1,000,000, figures that make it the most successful Arab aerial enterprise since the flying carpet.”

The man responsible for this transformation was Najib Alamuddin, otherwise known as the “flying sheikh”, a title that referred to his family’s prominent position in Lebanon’s Druze community.

Born in 1909, Alamuddin was educated at Beirut’s American University, and was determined to stamp a distinct Lebanese identity on the airline, hence the cedar tree emblazoned on the tail fin of its aircraft.

As chairman of MEA until retiring in 1977, he saw an expansion of routes to prestige destinations such as London and New York, with passengers drawn by Beirut’s reputation as a glamorous playground for the jet-set in the 1960s.

This influx of celebrities, including film stars and royalty, even led the airline to place an order for two Concordes in 1963, with the promise that they would have halved the five-hour journey to Heathrow.

In the end the Concorde order was cancelled in 1973, the result of operational costs and concerns about noise pollution which meant the aircraft was banned from supersonic flight over land.

By then, Lebanon was on the brink of a 15-year civil war that would leave Beirut’s reputation as the Paris of the Middle East literally in ruins.

The mid-70s also saw the end of the first golden age of flying. The hijacking of four international flights by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in September 1970 ended with three empty aircraft being blown up at an airstrip in Jordan.

Those incidents, and many other hijackings in the early 1970s – at one point happening on average once a week – led to the widespread introduction of passenger screening.

Flight and cabin crew of Middle East Airlines with a Boeing 707 9 in the late 1960s. Photo: Middle East Airlines – Air Liban

At the same time, airline travel was being made available to the masses, with the British entrepreneur Freddie Laker launching his no-frills Laker Air service from London to New York at a third of the price charged by the established airlines.

Faced with this unprecedented challenge, the big flag carriers had little choice but to aggressively price match. Laker was eventually forced into bankruptcy but dozens of other low-cost airlines were soon springing up.

They ushered in a very different experience of flying. Once passengers could stroll up only half an hour before a flight. Now it was two or three hours.

China plates and three-course meals were replaced by plastic containers and the inevitable question “beef or chicken” for all but business and first-class passengers, while non-smoking cabins and eventually an outright ban on cigarettes, cigars and pipes were introduced in the 1970s.

With legroom measured in centimetres and aircraft packed with hundreds of passengers, flying was no longer a question of looking your best, but rather trying to make yourself as comfortable as possible.

Yet perhaps the golden age of flying wasn’t quite as glittering as it is sometimes portrayed. The fog of cigarette smoke aside, the first passenger jets of the 1950s and ‘60s could be incredibly noisy by today’s standards – and there were no noise-cancelling headphones – or any in-flight entertainment of any kind.

Flying was also incredibly expensive. The price comparison website Skyscanner has calculated that a flight from London to Sydney, Australia was five times more expensive in the 1960s than today.

It was also dangerous. In the 1960s and 70s, passenger aircraft crashed on average more than once a month, while there were typically 1,500 to 2,000 deaths a year.

In 2019, the last year before the pandemic disrupted air travel, 289 people died in plane crashes, more than half of them on the crash of a single Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-Max.

The current statistics show airlines suffer an accident rate of 1.5 for every million departures. In 1960 the comparable accident rate was 27.2.

The uncomfortable truth is that golden age of flying was also the golden age of dying. But despite the loss of glitz and glamour, aviation has since emerged as once of the safest forms of transport around.

Updated: May 08, 2022, 4:08 AM