50 Years Of Airfares: The Evolution Of Price And What You Got In 1970 Vs Now

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Air travel has become a natural and almost essential part of the lives of many people across the developed world. Even though many things have changed about air travel, airfares have worked on our side. Here’s how airfares have developed in the past 50 years.

The Airbus A300 was a product of the 1970s. Photo: G B_NZ via Flickr

Were flights cheaper 50 years ago?

Over the past 50 years, the airline industry has been revolutionized. A lot has altered for better and for worse. In-flight service has changed, and legroom has reduced. Most noticeably, though, flying has become a more accessible mode of transport for a lot of the developed world.

While flying was once considered to be a luxury, it is now more common thanks to the rise of international air travel. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to pay for it. These days you can indeed get a bargain flight by purchasing your ticket with a low-cost airline. Yet, for the most part, airfares still feel costly.

That said, they’re a lot cheaper than they once were.

UA flight attendant in 1980s
Airfares may seem expensive now, but they are cheaper than 50 years ago. Photo: Getty Images

How have airfares changed?

During much of the 1970s, airfares in the US were regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The board had been regulating flights since 1938, controlling schedules and prices for American airlines. However, recession-inflation in the 1970s began to worry the US government, who feared that high prices for customers in a weak economy could lead to a collapse in the airline industry.

As such, in 1978, a momentous bill was passed through US congress that gradually eliminated the regulation of airlines. As a result, by 1983, all airlines were free of domestic CAB regulation, which meant they could set their own prices and effectively compete with other carriers.

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So what were the prices like back then?

Airfares: then vs. now

Just before the 1970s, the average domestic ticket from Dallas Fort-Worth International Airport (DFW) could cost around US$48, according to Mooseroots. That seems like a small price to pay for a trip across the US. However, a US$48 ticket in 1963 works out at about $378 today with inflation. For a similar ticket in this day and age, the cost variance isn’t that different.

The average cost of a domestic flight out of DFW in 2015 was US$385. In 2020, a quick search on Skyscanner shows that on 1st May, a return flight out of DFW to JFK, New York would cost US$299 with American Airlines at the lowest price.

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Again, a domestic flight from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) in 1963 cost US$43 on average. That figure is about $340 in 2020. In 2015, the average domestic flight price out of ORD was US$360.

JFK-LHR
A round trip between JFK and LHR would have cost more than $3,000. Photo: Great Circle Mapper

Even though these domestic flights appear not to have changed that much, international airfares have become much more affordable. According to Nomad Wallet, in 1970, a return flight between New York and London was retailed for $550. With inflation, that’s around $3,200 in today’s money. According to Skyscanner, a direct return flight leaving JFK to London Heathrow (LHR) on 1st May 2020 and returning on 8th May 2020 costs just $986 with Finnair.

Are we getting more bang for our buck?

Flights in the 1970s may well have been a lot more expensive, but passengers also got much more in terms of service. As airlines didn’t set their own rates, they were guaranteed profits. As a result, with the money travelers paid, airlines were able to offer crystal glasses, complimentary champagne, and real cutlery.

There’s certainly none of that on day’s flights, so should today’s airfares be cheaper?

Well, technically yes, if it wasn’t for the hike in fuel prices, taxes, and fees. Even though after the 1978 deregulation, airlines had more freedoms, they also benefitted from lower overheads. Airlines back in the day were able to operate at higher profit margins. These days it’s a different story.

Airline drinks on 747 in 1970
Better profit margins meant better service. Photo: Getty Images

In the US alone, there are a whole host of fees that rack up in an airfare, including security charges, Travel Facilities Tax, Immigration User Fee, and US Customs User Fee, to name but a few. The cost that we pay to fly these days is not spent on copious amounts of alcohol and dedicated air hostess service. It’s to cover the base costs.

The bottom line

Proportionally (inflation considered) flights are a lot cheaper now than they were 50 years ago. Consequently, flying is a more accessible mode of transport for many and has resulted in the soaring popularity of air travel, which began after deregulation.

However, despite the cost drop, the base cost of flying has increased as airlines operate small profit margins and seek to remain competitive.

Have you noticed a difference in airfare prices during your lifetime? Have you got a story to share about how flying used to be? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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