Photograph by Scott Indermaur, Alamy Stock Photo
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Reagan National Airport serves the Washington, D.C., metro area.

Photograph by Scott Indermaur, Alamy Stock Photo

Is the Golden Age of Air Travel Making a Comeback?

Attention, passengers: Things are looking up for airline travel thanks to lower oil costs—and ticket prices—and better in-flight amenities.

Remember what flying used to be like? You could arrive at the airport, minutes before your departure, expecting minimal security hassles and fellow travelers who were well-groomed and dressed to the nines.

Back in the good old days, coach seats had leg room enough to accommodate Shaq and eager-to-please flight attendants doled out hot meals and actual snacks (at no extra charge)—plus all the complimentary booze Don Draper could want.

It was basically the opposite of American air travel lately, where passengers are packed like undignified cattle into spaces so cramped they inspired an invention called the Knee Defender and served, if anything, lukewarm food that make a grade school cafeteria sound appealing.

But things could be looking up.

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), satisfaction with airlines based in the United States matches the highest rating on record, set in 1994, the first year the company started tracking this sort of thing.

With airline satisfaction approaching a 22-year high, could a return to the golden age of air travel be on the horizon?

Before you grab your pitchforks and start regaling us with your airline horror stories, let us acknowledge that air travel is, to be sure, a uniquely unpleasant experience.

The airline industry—even with its recent bump in approval ratings—is consistently among the lowest-scoring business sectors in the ACSI’s annual survey, which asks approximately 80,000 Americans to rate their consumer experiences across nearly a dozen industries.

Let us also acknowledge that most of you are probably too young to actually remember what flying was like in the golden days, back in the 1950s and '60s, when commercial aviation was still a gleaming novelty. And even then, air travel wasn’t really all that golden. 

Much of the glamour owed simply to the fact that flying was obscenely expensive—more than four times costlier than today—and thus accessible to mostly wealthy travelers.

The sexism those smiling stewardesses confronted—including weight requirements, high-heel mandates, and marriage bans—is unthinkable by modern standards. And that unlimited alcohol may have been more necessity than amenity; planes were noisier, more turbulent, and about five times likelier to crash than they are today. Not to mention the thick clouds of cigarette smoke, which couldn't have been fun for anyone.

Even still, today's fliers are clearly happier than they’ve been in a long time.

The ACSI issues scores of 1-100 to companies based on respondent answers to questions related to overall satisfaction, expectations versus actual experience, and “comparison to an ideal.” This year, Southwest Airlines climbed a few points to 80, joining JetBlue at the front of the line for consumer satisfaction, with Alaska Airlines—which announced plans to acquire Virgin America in early April—not far behind at 77.

Even the oft-reviled "Big Three" made good showings, with American surging nine points to 72, Delta holding strong at 71, and United rocketing 13 points to 68, it’s largest leap ever.

The price of oil has a lot to do with better air travel experiences. With the price of jet fuel in free fall since 2014, airlines are raking in record profits, some of which they’re using to make improvements aimed at making flying less terrible—even for the hoi polloi back in coach. On-time arrivals are up, cancellations are down, and fare prices have fallen.

Oil prices are expected to remain low for a long while, which means jet fuel will likely stay cheap, too. That isn’t good news for the climate, since flying has a huge carbon footprint, but travelers can mitigate the damage done by opting for more fuel-efficient carriers. (See Why Some Airlines Pollute More: 20 Ranked on Fuel Efficiency.)

“Airlines have always been one of the lowest-scoring industries in the ACSI because the in-flight experience was miserable,” says ACSI Chairman Claes Fornell. “Now, that is changing.”

Fornell identified three key improvement areas behind this about-face in customer satisfaction: “New planes, more options for in-flight entertainment, and the return of free snacks.”

The fact that more people are taking advantage of TSA Precheck—which gives vetted travelers access to shorter, less intrusive security screenings—may also be a factor in increased passenger happiness. Enrollment in the Transportation Security Administration-sponsored program topped two million earlier this year.

It’s not exactly the casual curb-to-gate sauntering of decades past, but it’s leaps and bounds better than waiting in line for an hour only to be asked to disrobe in front of a bunch of gloved strangers.

When it comes to air travel in the United States, it looks like sunny skies ahead—at least for the time being. So break out that fedora, put on some Sinatra, and start planning your next trip.

Cuba seems a fitting destination (once the bidding war victors are announced). After all, the last time Americans could fly to Havana from U.S. soil they could smoke their cigars on the flight back home.