10 Things We No Longer See at Airports

Public telephones at Dulles International Airport, c. 1960
Public telephones at Dulles International Airport, c. 1960 / Balthazar Korab, Library of Congress // No known restrictions on publication

Air travel used to be a lot more expensive and exclusive before the industry was deregulated. Many airports had luxurious amenities included in the cost of your pricey ticket. The events of 9/11 and the coronavirus pandemic changed the design and operation of U.S. airports in ways we still encounter. See how many of these features, if any, you remember.

1. Observation Decks

Plane-spotting as a hobby has become less convenient since 9/11. Watching airplanes take off and land was a free and exciting activity that kids enjoyed with their parents back in the day; so much so that almost every airport had a glass-enclosed observation area (outside the security check) where the public could sit for hours to watch and even photograph jumbo jets.

2. Colorful, Distinctive Luggage Tags

Baggage tags affixed by airlines at airports used to be as different and collectable as postage stamps. Each airport had its own logo, color combination, and overall design, so that you could tell from many yards away if the bag was destined for ORD (Chicago) or ORY (Paris). In the name of efficiency, baggage tags are now computer-generated, black-and-white bar codes printed on adhesive paper.

3. Hare Krishnas

The be-robed followers of Krishna handing out flowers while soliciting donations at every major airport was so ubiquitous in the 1970s and '80s that it was included as a joke in the 1980 farcical film Airplane! Tighter security, combined with a 1997 ban imposed at LAX by the city council, eventually prevented the sect from approaching airline passengers as they tried to catch their flights.

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4. Courtesy Cars

Believe it or not, one of the perks offered by most major airports to businessmen (they did most of the flying at the time) was the use of an airport-owned automobile for a nominal fee. Eventually, rental cars would become big airport business and those important businessmen would have to wait in line with the rest of us to pick up a sub-compact.

5. Coin-Operated TV Chairs

If your flight happened to be delayed and you didn’t feel like reading, watching TV was one way to make the time pass quickly. Most airports had a section of “TV chairs” that featured coin-operated televisions which would provide 30 minutes of local programming for 25 cents. Since pretty much everyone has their own portable entertainment these days, the Tele-A-Chair equipment isn't economically viable for most airports.

6. Free Baggage Carts

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In many other parts of the world, luggage carts are owned by the individual airport and are provided to customers as a convenience. This was once the standard in the U.S. as well—until the late 1960s, when the buggy business was sub-contracted out to a company called Smarte Carte. Airports found that they could save money by not having to retrieve carts from the far reaches of the parking lot, or worry about passengers taking them home with them.

7. Welcoming or Bidding Farewell at the Gate

Again, tightened security now prevents friends and family members from walking almost up the jetway to greet arriving passengers or clutch them tightly for one last farewell hug before departure. These regulations also make a major plot point of 1970’s Airport impossible—after all, that’s how Academy Award-winner Helen Hayes sneaks aboard an international flight.

8. Life Insurance Kiosks

For many years, there were kiosks with smiling personnel ready to sell you flight insurance ($25,000 coverage or more for a few dollars), as well as self-service vending machines located near just about every gate. But in 1955, a 23-year-old Colorado man named Jack Gilbert Graham used the cheap policies in a murder and fraud scheme. Graham purchased policies totaling $50,000 at the airport for his mother, then packed her suitcase full of dynamite. Eleven minutes after she took off in a flight from Denver, the plane exploded, killing her and 43 other passengers and crew. Graham was convicted of murder, but three other copycats bombed airliners for insurance payouts in the following decade. The pre-flight insurance kiosks began to disappear from airports not because of the scandals, but because air travel became more affordable and common. Passengers perceived flights as no more life-threatening than a road trip.

9. Outdoor Stairs as Your Only Option

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Until the Jetway was invented, all passengers had to walk outside onto the tarmac and climb a set of portable stairs to board the aircraft. This was often inconvenient depending upon weather conditions, or on the passenger’s personal fear of flying. The first Jetway covered corridors were installed by Delta Airlines at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport in May 1961.

10. Smoking

There used to be no restrictions on where you could light up in an airport. When the surgeon general got involved with all those health warnings in the 1970s, designated smoking areas became the norm. When cigarettes were first banned on certain flights, the most congested area in the airport arrival lounge wasn’t the baggage claim but rather the perimeter around the first pedestal ashtray passengers encountered as they exited. Today, smoking restrictions at many airports are so tight that folks have to stand some 20 feet or more outside the exit doors of the building.