It's easy to get all misty-eyed about the early days of commercial aviation. Passengers flying from Auckland to Sydney in the 1950s sat in spacious lounge-style seats, enjoyed a seven-course meal and had the option of playing deck quoits. It all sounds terribly glamorous until you discover that the flight was often uncomfortably turbulent because the plane was unpressurised so it had to fly at low altitude. It was also so cold that passengers were given hot water bottles and feet warmers. Oh, and it took eight hours. Give me an airconditioned Airbus A320 with a seatback TV any day.
Air New Zealand turns 75 this year and to celebrate there's an exhibition of the airline's history and achievements at Te Papa Museum in Wellington (until June 7). While it's predictably Air NZ-focused, it nevertheless provides a fascinating insight into the evolution of air travel and the social changes that have accompanied it.
It begins with a selection of crew uniforms, from the original military-style outfits of the late 1940s to the current natty design by Trelise Cooper. In between are some corkers, such as a beautiful but ludicrously impractical button-up design from bridal gown designer Vinka Lucas and a racy, short-skirted number with knee-high white boots from the 1970s.
A wall of nostalgic promotional photos and videos shows how times have changed. In the early 1950s, you could only be a hostess if you were single and childless. If you got married, you had to leave. There was also no coffee served onboard, just regular tea and "beef tea", an interesting infusion of hot water and Bovril.
The bulk of the exhibition follows a timeline from the airline's first flight on April 30, 1940, to the present day. There's a mock-up of the cabin from the Solent Mark IV flying boat used for those early eight-hour flights to Sydney plus displays on the DC-8 (New Zealand's first jet-engine passenger plane) and the ubiquitous Boeing 747-400. There are some cringe-inducing old TV ads and an extravagant array of ashtrays from the days when smoking on flights was practically encouraged.
There was also no coffee served onboard, just regular tea and "beef tea".
It's easy to forget that planes don't just transport people and a section on cargo highlights the remarkable array of produce that is whisked around the world, from chilled live bees to fresh flowers to V8 supercars. The airline even has a special weekly service for transporting pets from New Zealand to London.
Engineering enthusiasts will love the exposed gas-turbine engine from a Boeing 737 and there's an appropriately moving section honouring passengers and crew killed in air accidents.
By far the most popular exhibit is the Virtual Flight Lab, which uses a mock cabin and Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets to provide a taste of how inflight entertainment might look in the future. While wearing the headset, you can move your head to look around the interior of a virtual aircraft before the system whisks you away to a series of exotic destinations around the world. It even gives you a virtual body. "Oh my God, I've got skinny legs!" exclaims a fuller-figured lady sitting next to me.
There's more impressive technology in the "Paint a Plane" exhibit where you can design your own aircraft livery using a touch-sensitive screen. Once completed, the system will email it to you as a stencil which can be printed out and made into a paper plane.
Younger kids are also well catered for with an activity area full of colouring books, jigsaws and crew uniforms to dress up in.
According to exhibition manager Sally Castro, the installation took a year to put together. It's a fine effort and well worth a trip across the ditch. You might not be able to play deck quoits anymore but at least it won't take eight hours to get there.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Wellington. Phone 13 24 76, airnewzealand.com.au.
SEE + DO
Air New Zealand 75 Years runs until June 7, 2015, at Te Papa Museum, 55 Cable Street, Wellington. Open daily, 10am–6pm. Admission free, see tepapa.govt.nz.
The writer travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand.