Since the golden age of air travel, flying has been the preferred mode of transportation for most travelers. Back then, it was highly regarded for the amount of time saved compared to a slow ride on a passenger vessel across the ocean. But since then, flying has changed quite a bit—most of it happening in the last two decades. Here are six ways flying has changed in the last 20 years.
1. It’s all digital
Gone are the days of paper tickets, mechanical scales, and having to speak to an airline representative. These days, most passengers can do everything online or on their smartphones. You can book flights, choose your seats, and receive updates on gates and departure times, all from your device.
Airport security might be the most noticeable way flying has changed in the last 20 years. In fact, TSA was created after 9/11. Many may not remember the days before volume-based liquid restrictions, but they did exist. Now, liquids in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces will be thrown out if you try to take them through security. Some airport TSA checkpoints are even starting to require passengers to remove food items and snacks from their bags on domestic flights.
Additionally, unless you have TSA Precheck, passengers must remove shoes, jackets, belts, and items from their pockets before passing through security machines. Controversial body scanners and mandatory pat-downs for those who refuse the machines have popped up in the last two decades as well.
Thankfully, technology is helping travelers stay one step ahead of long wait lines at the airport. TripIt Pro users have the ability to see how long it’s going to take to get through security, right in the TripIt app. How does it work? TripIt Pro sends an alert three hours before your flight with the current wait times. You can also check the app for real-time updates, so you know what to expect when you arrive.
3. Free amenities
Once upon a time, a plane ticket got you a seat plus snacks and beverages or even a full meal, depending on the length of the flight. While there are still a few airlines that offer meals (like on long international flights), most passengers are surprised if they are offered free snacks. Some budget airlines don’t even offer beverages anymore.
Luggage any larger than a briefcase or backpack usually comes with surcharges as well. A handful of airlines still let you check one bag for no additional charge, especially on international flights, but that’s not the norm. Often, you’ll only get a carry-on for free, but even that is changing. One way to bypass this is to use travel credit cards that come with free checked bags.
4. Planes are bigger, seats are smaller
While airplanes have gotten wider and accommodate more passengers over time, airlines have also insisted on squeezing more people onto every flight. Aisles and seats have consistently gotten narrower over the years. In the last 20 years, the average seat width has shrunk from 18.5” to 17”.
Cabins are also more packed, not just with people, but with luggage. Because so many airlines charge for checked bags, more and more travelers are opting for carry-ons instead. That means cabins, overhead bins, and under-seat storage are loaded with a lot more stuff than they used to be.
5. The First Class experience
Did you know seats that turned into full-size beds weren’t always an option in first class? Business travelers and those willing to splurge for comfort on long flights now have a plethora of posh options, from lay-flat seats to private booths.
While there are still airlines like Emirates that have first class lounges and bars, passengers are often encouraged to stay in their seats and buckle up. On the upside, there are more opportunities to upgrade to first or business class.
Twenty years ago, there were no smartphones or tablets and laptops had barely reached mainstream status. In that respect, flying has changed significantly. In 20 years, airlines have discarded strategically placed boxy video monitors that played reruns of popular sitcoms or movies for which passengers had to pay to view with special headphones.
Now, most airlines have individual screens in every seat back that offer (usually) free entertainment. If not, many have apps that allow you to stream movies or TV shows right to your device. In-flight Wi-Fi is also becoming mainstream, usually for an extra fee or through a membership of some sort.
The bottom line
To be sure, flying has changed significantly in the last 20 years. Whether that’s for better—Wi-Fi, free entertainment, posh first-class digs—or worse—invasive security checks, expensive luggage, smaller seats—depends on what matters most to you.
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