Once upon a time, jet travel was special. To fly was to be one of the anointed few who had experienced what it means to be modern. It was not so long ago that to travel by air was imbued with a magical significance capable of evoking an entire world of vivid color and high glamour. Hard though it may be to imagine in an era where air travelers are more likely to be met with delays than dining options, and upcharges than upgrades, the journey was once at least as exciting as the destination. Only now from the distance of half a century can we see the jet age for what it was—a defined historical period, no more than a couple of decades, during which technology combined with celebrity captured the public imagination in a way that would be impossible today.
Technically speaking the jet age was born in the 1930s when Germany’s Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain and England’s Frank Whittle pioneered the large aircraft engine. By the end of World War II there were jet fighters in the air, and in the early 1950s the De Havilland Comet was in service as a passenger plane. But the jet age really began in 1957, the first year that more people crossed the Atlantic by air than by boat.
Until the 1950s intercontinental travel remained much as it had for a century: The last major revolution had been the arrival of steam, and with it the railway and the ocean liner, but momentous though those changes had been, mankind had remained fastened to the planet's surface. The jet age was about to change all that.
There had been fledgling air services between the wars, but with the arrival of passenger airliners people traveled higher, faster, and more fashionably than ever before. Just a generation earlier the air crossing of the Atlantic had been a miraculous feat of courage, ingenuity, and daring, and now everyone was doing it. Well, not everyone.
Those who traveled by jet were automatically glamorous. For many years major newspapers assigned photographers to airport gates to snap the rich and famous as they exited airplanes. It was also a time of paradox, a time when the world expanded in terms of possibility while simultaneously shrinking in terms of distance.
Modern celebrity was still shaping itself and the "international set," as Ian Fleming called them, established their airborne migration pattern in their restless quest for pleasure. Indeed, it is interesting to track the arrival of the jet age through the James Bond novels—among the first works of popular fiction to offer that intoxicating blend of sybaritic luxury and exotic locations. The first novel, Casino Royale (1953), takes place in a resort town in France, a setting that would not have been familiar to those who lived in the decidedly terrestrial world of the pre–jet age. The world was moving faster and soon Her Majesty’s most lethal secret agent was jetting around the world with the rest of the global elite. In the books, Fleming lingers lovingly over descriptions of air travel, imbuing it with an almost erotic charge: the views of the sun, the quality of the food, and the savoring of such exotic delights as "Irish Coffee."
And before the inevitable arrival of fasten-seatbelt signs and safety instruction manuals, travelers smoked, sipped cocktails, and read magazines in spacious lounge areas. Intercontinental flights featured VIP bars and bunk-bed-style sleeping areas for guests; one could even be served breakfast in bed by an impeccably uniformed stewardess. For those few who could afford it, the experience was the ultimate in lavish travel.
The jet set itself did not truly take off until the 1960s, and it was unlike any other elite that had preceded it: It was not founded on bloodlines or achievement. You could not look up its members in books. Money and celebrity were its twin currencies; the color magazines and popular newspapers were its Almanach de Gotha and Debrett’s. The rich and famous loved islands, secluded enclaves where they could behave as badly as they liked: Capri, the Bahamas, Sardinia, and, of course, the ne plus ultra of island retreats, Mustique.
With the arrival of passenger airliners people traveled higher, faster, and more fashionably than ever before.
As long as you had money the jet set was democratic. You could be the Shah of Iran or Liz Taylor, Aristotle Onassis or Rudolf Nureyev—it did not matter what you did provided you did it on an operatic scale. Forget furtive liaisons and repressed emotions, love—like life—needed to be Wagnerian in proportion: Burton and Taylor, Callas and Onassis, Sachs and Bardot, jet-set affairs lived and died in the flashbulb glare of international prurience: the happy (or so at least they must have seemed) few providing a real-life, real-time drama that left many slack-jawed in amazement.
Navigating a crowded airport in the twenty-first century, it seems astonishing to think that travel was once considered a glamorous activity, and yet it was. Although the airplane remains very much part of our lives, the glamour of the jet age is as much a thing of the past as the transatlantic ocean liners that the jet replaced.
Nicholas Foulkes is a British historian, author, and journalist who has written books on subjects as diverse as James Bond, porcelain, and the trench coat. He is the luxury editor of British GQ, co-founder and editor in chief of Finch’s Quarterly Review, and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.