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Nearly 40 years after the first successful flight of the Wright brothers, TWA and American Airlines began coast-to-coast coach flights with 60 passengers on board DC-4s. These would set back each passenger $110 for a one-way ticket. It was a hefty price to pay as it was equivalent to over $1,000 today. 

Although almost everyone flew first-class in the 1930s and 1940s, it was the introduction of coach flights (less expensive than first-class) that attracted women, children, and families. Before the introduction of coach class, the most frequent fliers were businessmen traveling first-class. 

How flying coach originated

Up until this point, most of the money made during this era was not from passengers but from airmail deliveries. In 1939 the Postmaster General summoned airline chiefs to Washington D.C. and proposed the airlines merge into larger units. After some tough negotiations, three transcontinental lines emerged; TWA, United, and American. The fourth formation for north-south routes along the Atlantic seaboard was Eastern airlines. Collectively they were referred to as The Big Four. Pan American had a monopoly on intercontinental routes, and for almost half a century, these five ruled the airways. Coach flights slowly began to spread with this new formation. All domestic flights were now one-class, coach, or standard until TWA started two-class flights in 1955.

The aircraft

Following proving flights by United Airlines of the DC-4E, it became obvious, – the 52-seat airliner was too large to operate economically. Changes were made to the design, and Douglas produced the DC-4A. It had a simple unpressurized cabin, Twin Wasp engines, a single fin and rudder, and tricycle landing gear.  It was propeller-driven, with a maximum cruising altitude of 10,000 – 12,000 feet, making it impossible to fly over bad weather. 

The experience

Passengers were brave. It was an era of accidents, delays, and ringing ears. Flight stewards were accustomed to regularly handing out air sickness bags. When passengers were provided a meal, they were required to balance a tray of food and beverages on their knees.

Stewards were mostly male in the 1930s. Later, before WWII, they recruited registered female nurses. Airlines began requesting single women in their 20s post-WWII. These early flight attendants were often the face of advertised travel and a welcome attendant to the weary traveler. 

While flying first-class remains the preferred way to travel aboard any aircraft, most would agree pressurized cabins, safer aircraft, and onboard entertainment for all are something to celebrate during this era of coach-class travel.

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