Earlier this week I was accused by a younger person of lying about an experience I had on an airplane when I was six years old. True, there is a lot about flying in "the old days" that younger people cannot comprehend – security used to be a retired cop sitting on a folding chair next to a dilapidated metal detector and anyone under 10 was guaranteed the opportunity to enter the cockpit to chat with the captain during flight – but they've seen such things in enough movies to believe them. I'll have to rely on the fact that many of you are my age (35) or older to prove that I am not lying about this one, though.

There used to be an airline called People Express. People Express was the first post-1978 deregulation "ultra low cost" airline. It would be comparable to Southwest in the US or RyanAir in Europe today.
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People Express introduced, in the words of Homer Simpson, "a generation of hicks to air travel." Its prices were extremely low and its level of service quite spartan back in an era in which airlines still boasted about who did the best job of pampering passengers. People Express is also notable for having thought it wise to use purple, orange, and magenta simultaneously as its colors.


Here's the part no one will believe.

My first flight was on People Express. Passengers boarded the plane and then after takeoff the stewardesses (as they were known back in the day) went around the plane and collected the fares from passengers in cash. You know, like they do on Amtrak. Like a flying train. No reservations necessary, no advance purchase, no tiered fares, nothing. You got on the plane, it took off, and then you paid. No credit cards or checks. I swear to a sampling of deities, that is how it worked.

The question of what happened to a passenger who boarded without the ability to pay did not trouble me at the time. In hindsight I suppose they would be treated the same way a train passenger is treated when the conductor finds him unable to pay, and the police would likely be called at the airport upon arrival.

They were simpler times. Oh, and as much as TV comedians and the general public enjoyed making fun of People Express during its brief existence, it was purchased by Continental in 1987 and its business practices (charging for checked bags and food, for example) are now widespread in the airline industry. Except for that whole pay-on-board part. That never quite caught on for some reason.

39 thoughts on “NPF: FLYING TRAIN”

  • SiubhanDuinne says:

    @afeman: Yes indeed. I used to fly the NY-DC shuttle, not regularly but often enough that I got to know the drill pretty well, and yeah, you stood in line forever and then piled on the plane and paid your fare once you were aboard. If the line was too long and the plane was full, you just sighed and waited another hour for the next shuttle. No big deal.
    (This was in the 70s. I have no idea what it's like now.)

  • tommytimp says:

    I was on the last PeopleExpress flight EVER from Chicago to Newark. Early February 1987. I was bumped off Continental and shuffled to PE. No-frills indeed. We landed something like 11:30 PM Eastern time. Then, since the airline had ceased to exist, our luggage sat somewhere in the airport for like an hour and a half. I think some Delta guys took pity on us.

  • chautauqua says:

    I flew hundreds of times for free in the 1970's. The planes were bona fide antique seaplanes belonging to the USCG. Good times.

  • Dating myself badly here (No! I'm 25. I do time travel. Honest!) I'm wondering why that retired cop is there on a folding chair.

    In the really high and far off times, there was no security on any kind of chair. You walked across the tarmac to the plane and up those rolling stair thingies they had and went on in. It made for a wonderful moment when disembarking. The plane door would open, and suddenly there was a new world out there where the air felt and smelled different. (Really. It does. Temp, humidity, local earth and other smells are all quite distinctive.) Jetways take that first moment away. I've always hated them.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    And back in the day, no matter how many comedians made careers out of joking about it, airplane food was not that bad at all.

    Some of it was pretty good!

    But, maybe my pre-flight ritual had something to do with it:
    3 double-bourbon's and 3 large beer chasers!!!!

    My thinking was, get so drunk, that if the plane crashes, you won't notice since you'll be passed-out.

  • When I first flew to Europe at the end of August 1985 I just missed being able to fly on People Express' first flights to Europe. When I returned to the US in October of 1986, they'd just gone broke and stopped selling trans-Atlantic tickets. So I missed that window entirely.

  • The old days of Southwest….the flight stewards (not what they were called then) wore very short hot pants with white boots. Been on a couple of those flights.

  • paintedjaguar says:

    quixote – "The plane door would open, and suddenly there was a new world out there where the air felt and smelled different."

    Oh, yes! I'd almost forgotten. I flew from the U.S. to Poland back in 1977 and couldn't get over the smell of the air when I disembarked. Not bad, not good… just different in an undefinable way.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Thank you, Croooooow, for your ignorant and racist comment.

    I wish John Roberts and the other 4 evil Fascist stooges on the SCOTUS could have read your pile of putrid word-turds before making some of their recent decisions – based on the fact that racism is dead in America.

    It's still alive and well, sadly.

    So, how are you and the other armed Teatards holding up at the Bundy ranch?
    What's that noise "droning" on in the background?

    Oh, have a nice weekend – AND FUCK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Oh, and btw, Croooow – how would you know if anyone else smells, over your own unwashed stench?

    It's YOU who stink, "MORAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

  • I can't stand commercial air travel any more. Since I don't live in a major hub city it takes two hops to get just about anywhere.

    I can actually drive from Columbus to Toronto faster than I can fly there. By the time you make your connection somewhere it takes 8 hours to fly there. I've made it by car in 6.5 hours.

  • I remember being served food with real silverware on Eastern. I remember back in my days as a smoker sitting in the smoking section (mid 1970's). I remember leaving a plane by stairs to the tarmac and walking over to the baggage collection area which was a row of wooden tables under cover like you might see at a flea market and getting your bags when they drove them over from the plane. (Gainesville, FL's airport in the 1970's. Right next to the drag track.)

    Ah, those were simpler times.

  • I'm so old I can remember when people dressed for air travel. At least a sweater and nice "slacks"; (is that still a word?) suit and tie was better. The now-common Mega-death T-shirt, cut-offs and sandals would probably have gotten you thrown off the plane.

    I also remember when the standard seat pitch didn't cause deep vein thrombosis on a two hour flight.

    Those times are gone.

    In the 70's, there was a Lufthansa 747 that went from someplace in Germany to Detroit, with a stop in Boston. I would fly stand-by on the nearly empty aircraft, Boston to Detroit for about 50 bucks. Got to practice my German with the remarkable Lufthansa stewardesses. Thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

    Now the flight attendants treat me like I'm their Dad. Sic transit.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    In The Parallax View, Warren Beatty runs across an airport tarmac to escape from assassins, somehow barges into a plane that's already taxiing down the runway, and pays the stewardess after settling into his seat.

  • In 1970-1974 I flew on United from LA to NY (and back) several dozen times on the 10am flight. The 747 was new. In the spacious lounge coach passengers could go to a buffet with hot fresh bagels, cream cheese, lox, and other fixings, plus juices and cereals. Then there were two meals, with silverware. The fare was $106.

  • I remember flying from FL to LAX when I was 16 (I probably looked 12) and sitting in the back of the plane and smoking the whole way there. As a (recent) nonsmoker I'm glad that's no longer allowed, but it's kind of amazing how much you used to be able to get away with. (Get off my lawn.)

  • Phoenician in a time of Romans says:

    In the really high and far off times, there was no security on any kind of chair. You walked across the tarmac to the plane and up those rolling stair thingies they had and went on in. It made for a wonderful moment when disembarking. The plane door would open, and suddenly there was a new world out there where the air felt and smelled different.

    Had that experience flying into Rarotonga last year. Stepped out of the door onto a stairway and GODDAMN there's this friggin' TROPICAL BLOODY ISLAND in my face.

  • Weird Old Tip says:

    Tried flying commercial once since 9-11. I attempted to
    carry on my own lunch & they confiscated my little plastic
    tub of onion dip. Never again!

  • Captain Blicero says:

    Do you really want to return to Mad Men times when people dressed up to go into the city?

    I've had to wear a suit while flying and it's incredibly uncomfortable. I'd rather wear a t-shirt and jeans (or shorts). Although I'd never wear flip flops-I don't really care about offending people's sense of how I should dress but I don't believe in the olfactory terrorism that is flip flops.

    Sometimes I do cringe when I see someone wearing a yellowed Hanes undershirt and sweatpants at the grocery store. But I'd rather it be acceptable for people to dress however they find comfortable, even if it's a little more informal or trashy looking than I would dress. And I'm glad I'm not expected to wear a coat and two

  • Captain Blicero says:

    And I'm glad I'm not expected to wear a coat and tie every time I want to take a weekend trip to manhattan

  • Hmmm. I don't have any organized position on dress standards; just some random thoughts:
    (This is WAY OT.)
    First of all, no, of course I don't expect people to dress like they did in the 50's. On the other hand, I do regret the loss of the idea that there are appropriate ways to dress for situations.
    I was in court a while ago (On business, honest) and a kid came in, with his parents, to face a DUI charge. So he was standing in front of the judge in a ratty T-shirt, jeans and gym shoes. Disrespectful and stupid, and he got the book thrown at him. There's a common theme now that says that I can dress however I want (or do whatever I want), and if you don't like it, tough sh!t, but if you imagine that how you dress doesn't affect how you are treated, you're just wrong. There's research.

    Also, if your suit is incredibly uncomfortable, you bought the wrong suit. If you try one on and it doesn't feel like pyjamas, keep shopping. Sadly, no $200 suit will ever be comfortable. You're going to be spending 10 hours a day in it for a few years, so it's worth the extra money.

    Finally, like Geoff said, GOML

  • On the new "dress up" topic- I agree, if you're going to court or a job interview or whatever, dress up. Hell, if I have to go to the bank and get a loan or something where I impressions matter, I will at least where a nice button-down shirt and pants.

    One of the things about managing stores in the inner-cities- we didn't allow jeans, and so it was often a struggle for some of my new employees to come up with the cash for a pair of pants. Getting people to show up in anything other than T shirt and jeans for the interview was rare- it made the people who did show up in nicer clothes a leg up already.

    Yeah, I know, GOML

  • ninja3000 says:

    As far as my recent experience is concerned, one can no longer board an Amtrak train without a ticket already in hand, at least on the Northeast Corridor.

    But I remember flying the Eastern Shuttle from NYC-DC and paying cash on board, maybe early '70s…

  • I flew United as a kid pre-deregulation. The food was awful (catered by Stouffers) and some seats were facing each other rather than in a line (awkward esp for a kid seated around adults). I rode People Express a couple times, along with another carrier (?Apple Air) that was owned by the same holding company as Continental & People Express (Continental, then at its nadir didn't buy People Express, the holding company run by a former Easter Airlines guy did). It was about 1985 and they took reservations but otherwise were minimalists. the planes were old airliners with no legroom (probably worse than the typical "legacy carrier" now. It was an O'Hare to Newark flight and departed from a very obscure part of O'Hare. I literally had to run across O'Hare to board before departure time. My connecting Delta flight was more comfortable but the food consisted of barely defrosted sandwiches. I doubt airline food has ever been very good. As time went on, legacy carriers cut their flights, inflated travel times (to mask poor on-time performance), lessened seat pitch and did all the things we complain about now, Most of the discomfort happened as new airliners came on line in the early 90s, which is also when the puddle jumpers began to be used for shorter flights. I forget when the food left (I haven't missed it). Paying for checked bags is more recent but anyone who travels a few times a year knows the work arounds. Personally, I wish they could get people to quit taking oversized wheelies on board. When I travelled often, I learned to pack smart even for business trips.

  • sheila in nc says:

    In 1970 my family flew from DC to Little Rock to attend my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary. My mother and I bought special new dresses FOR THE FLIGHT. That was kind of what you did.
    Also my only experience with People Express was when I was defending my PhD thesis in Massachusetts in 1983. My "outside reader" was coming from DC and I had to pay for his travel (long story). Having no money, I booked him on PE. He ended up having to spend 6 hours in Newark Airport between connections. I still wonder how I ever managed to pass my oral exams.

  • That $104 flight in 1972 would cost $582.41 today.

    While I travel frequently on business, I'm not paid well enough to dress up for a flight. No one knows the company I work for, and they're flying me coach, so shorts and a t-shirt it is.

    That said, when I went in to court to finalize my divorce, I dressed up in a proper slacks/sport coat and tie combination, and was shocked to see how poorly people dressed for court proceedings. Job interviews and court proceedings were the two environments I thought one still should "dress up" for, as it were (client meetings being a third).

    As for flying: it suck pre-deregulation and it sucks post-deregulation. The only real difference is the prevalence of the hub-spoke system and the bizarro pricing system for tickets. I don't have much sympathy for the commenter from Columbus (try flying out of Akron to save money), because he lives in Columbus and no one who chooses that fate deserves sympathy, but the people in Minneapolis that Delta bends over the table on airfare….yikes.

  • Cattle express we called it.. I used it between Newark and Boston..

    once I got to sit in the engineer jump seat in the cockpit for about a half hour coming into Nova Scotia from Duess on Lufthansa.. I was in business class..

  • There's still plenty of airports that don't have jetways. I've boarded many a 737 through the old rollaway stairs.

  • You could just point people to The Great Wiki:

    "The airline used a simplified fare structure. All seats on a route were offered at the same price except for slightly-lower "off-peak" fares. All seats were in economy class except for "Premium Class" on overseas flights. Fares were paid in cash aboard the aircraft early in the flight. Passengers were permitted to bring one carry-on bag for free and each checked bag cost $3.00. People Express was the first United States airline to charge a fee for each checked bag. People Express also charged modest amounts for customers wanting food or beverages. Sodas cost 50 cents per can, honey-roasted peanuts and Rachel's brownies were also 50 cents, and the famous People Express "snak-pak" (an assortment of cheeses, crackers and salami) cost $2."

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