9 Things Millennials Won’t Remember About Air Travel In The 90s (UPDATED)

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I’m millennial cusp (Gen-Xennial?), but true millennials didn’t have to fly in the 90s, the luckiest thing of all.

I’m sure they’ve heard about the “glamorous days of air travel” back in the day, but this definitely doesn’t refer to flights circa 1990 to 2001 (September 11 brought major changes to how we fly, and so will post-coronavirus).

Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers and Cuspians will get nostalgic with these nine ways air travel has dramatically changed since we were in high school. Millennials: this may be the first time you’ll be thankful you’re not one of us!

9 ways air travel has changed since the 1990s

Orlando International Airport pre-tech boom. Photo: Goldiecat/Tripod

1. You had to call the airline to book a ticket.

When I was a senior in high school, the Internet was just being introduced to the public. As you can imagine, it was pretty limited… and very, very slow (remember that dial-up tone?).

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In order to book a ticket, you would have to visit a travel agent or call the airline directly over the phone. Then, paper tickets would be mailed to you. Wow, how retro! I remember you could request aisle or window seats, but the airline would basically dictate where you would be sitting.

2) Your friends could go past the security gates.

Pre- September 11th, family and friends without boarding passes could actually go past the security gates with you and see you off as you boarded your flight.

Airport fashion!

To this day, I’m still blown away as to how this was a thing, and I’m sure there are several 80s movies where this is documented. I clearly remember my mom or high school friends actually waving goodbye as I boarded the plane at the gate. I also remember craning my neck back to see them one last time as I walked through the bridge.

It worked the other way too. As you got off the plane, your friends or family would be waiting at the boarding gate with flowers (or “you ruined my day” face because they had to wake up at 6 am to pick you up because Uber didn’t exist back then), and you would walk to the baggage claim together.

Not a lot of people know non-passengers *can* go past security in very rare situations, which I write about here. See if you qualify.

Crowded airport post 1990s!

3) International business class did not have lie-flat seats.

Emirates business class

Back in the day, business-class passengers had to fly to Europe in seats that reclined maybe six inches.

There’s a surprising high number of airlines that still have international business class cabins set up this way, and you can bet they are the cheapest business-class seats to book. Even still, no one got lie-flat seats back in 1997, but they dreamed about it. Ah, modern comforts!

4) There was no seatback entertainment.

Seatback entertainment (RuPaul’s Drag Race) on Delta.

Personal seatback entertainment on international flights isn’t the future. It’s NOW. But twenty years ago, heck even ten years ago, many airlines did not offer this. You would have to watch a movie on a big screen (like a movie theater), which meant it was CRUCIAL where your seat was. If there was not a big projector screen, you would watch the movie on various small, clunky pop-down screens.

Passengers did not have options to hundreds of movies. You basically watched the movie the airline played, like Mrs. Doubtfire or whatever.

Keep in mind, laptops were NOT a thing back then, so it’s not like you could watch your own downloaded movies. You either watched the movie (and got audio through really bad headsets), read a book or slept.

Sometimes, the tracking was bad. Millennials will not know the days of VCRs but, gosh, that tracking was the WORST. Also, if you were sitting in the bulkhead, you were everyone’s enemy if you stood up.

5) You could smoke on your flight.

Fortunately, this was before my time, but smoking was allowed on flights until the 1990s. I can’t even imagine what this must have been like, and you’ll still find ashtrays in older planes’ bathrooms.

6) If you did not have a physical boarding pass, you could not board the plane.

You need a boarding pass.

Before electronic boarding passes existed, a boarding pass was literally your ticket to board. So, let’s say you went to the bathroom and somehow lost your ticket: you were SCREWED.

This happened to me once. They couldn’t “reprint” a ticket (that didn’t exist) but because the woman checking in me was the same woman who was collecting the tickets, she remembered me and made a zillion phone calls so I could make the flight. I had the flight substantially delayed. I think people golf clapped. Yeah, 90s people were funny back then too.

7) Everyone could use the overhead bin without having a panic attack.

So much overhead bin space.

Once airlines started charging passengers to check their luggage, this whole situation became a total mess with carry-on luggage. Passengers these days literally get anxiety not knowing if they can bring their luggage on board due to lack of space, and they fight over overhead bin space.

Even boarding agents now will warn you that they don’t have overhead bin space for everyone, so some passengers have to check their luggage at the boarding gate even after they went through security. Trust me. This never happened in the nineties.

8) You could bring water through security.

Pre- 9/11, security was so much easier. You could bring water bottles through, you could wear your shoes and you didn’t have to take out your laptop if you had one. You could literally bring a keg if you wanted (OK, that’s a stretch, but you get it). Also, you can bet there were no body scanners.


Food on Delta flight.

You have to pay for food on domestic flights now but—back in the day—food was included on almost every flight over two hours. We’re talking hot meals on trays. When you heard that service cart going up the aisle, you knew it was time to eat!

Is there anything I’m missing? Feel free to leave comments below!

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Jimmy Im has traveled to 113 countries, stayed at over 600 hotels and clocked millions of air miles. He currently lives in New York City.

8 thoughts on “9 Things Millennials Won’t Remember About Air Travel In The 90s (UPDATED)

  1. im just wondering why this is targeting millennials as if they missed all these things. I am born in 87, a prime millennial. I have experienced all these things except for the smoking in an airplane. little CRT TVs every 5-10 rows playing Vulcano the movie. (horrible one)

    Post 9/11 the airline industry changed for the worse. But honestly, what millennial does not know VCRs?! we went from casette tapes to cd’s to dvd’s to blu-rays and even the bloody mini-disk bs.

    You should change the term millennial to the term GenZ and you may be on track with your article.

  2. Airline tickets were totally exchangeable with other people and other airlines. I recall being able to give my paper ticket to someone else to use to fly. It was like cash! Also if my flight got cancelled I could use my TWA ticket on a different Continental Airlines flight. Crazy.

  3. Back then you could show up at the airport 15 minutes before your flight. Check in with the sky cap and they would let the gate know you were on your way. If you were running late the airline would hold the plane for you.

    If you were too late and they let you board but not your check bag. They would send it on the flight after yours. You didn’t have travel with your bag.

  4. Love this article. Thank you! However, being born in 1984 and thus a true millennial, I certainly remember VCRs!! I used them for watching rented movies until I was well into my teens. And yes, it is true that even 10-ish years ago you had to watch whatever one movie they played on the plane. I remember sitting through some truly awful movies. ?

  5. I flew domestic and international in 1996 and 1997 at age 9 and 10. I remember being served a bagel for breakfast (never had a bagel before and thought the flight attendant said “bacon” lol) and I vividly recall being served a ham sandwich with lettuce and tomato. Being a kid, I thought these things were DELICIOUS. I am sure they would be good today, too. I wish the days of free checked bags and food would come back. I find it sad that airlines used the post 9/11 and recession as a reason to eliminate these things.

  6. Back in the late 80’s my then girlfriend and I would go to the airport and bar hop. There were maybe 5 or 6 drink spots (MSP) Some had excellent plane spotting views. For some reason I thought it was cool paying five bucks (then) for a Heineken! Good times!

  7. One more thing millennials …

    Cash: When the drink cart came around you could pull out a $5 or $10 bill and buy a beer or liquor. Now, only credit cards.

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