Pan Am first class: What the early first class cabins on airlines were like

British Airways has long dined out on being the first airline to introduce lie-flat beds to the skies, but history suggests that is not quite true. 

I say history, I mean one reader. After writing about BA's 100th birthday and how it launched its fully-reclinable seat in 1995 in First Class, and in 2000 in Business, I received a letter detailing how a different airline beat the UK flag carrier to it, and by 40 years.

"I joined Pan Am in Calcutta, India, in July 1948," the letter read. "And we had DC-6Bs flying across the Pacific from Calcutta to San Francisco [and] Los Angeles, via Manilla or Tokyo with 'sleeperette' seats in Clipper Class.

"These pulled out to stretch your legs and the backs could recline so you almost had a bed."

The revelation prompted a dive into the origins of first class cabins (and business class, though this definition is more murky and its beginnings closer to the '70s), tracing the history of commercial aviation to the days of Pan Am and its post-war expansion. And though BA's claim to fame is largely accepted, it is interesting to see what awaited those who first turned left in the glory days of flight.  

It was in 1952 when Pan Am began flying the DC-6B (Douglas Cooper, to the uninitiated) on transatlantic flights, becoming one of the earliest adopters of a two-cabin system. In those days, economy or "tourist class" was known as the Rainbow service. The now-defunct airline had its DC-6s, or Super Sixes, configured in one of three ways: all first class, with 44 seats; all Rainbow, with 109; or in a duel set-up with 82. It's worth noting that this was only allowed to happen after the Civil Aeronautics Board permitted airlines to charge differing fares for the same flight. 

It was in those carrying first-class passengers that the "sleeperettes" awaited. Only available on some of Pan Am's 50-odd Clippers, the chairs were as you might expect something described as a sleeperette today: reclinable seats, but with added leg rests. The seats were at the same time being introduced on the airline's Boeing 377 Stratocruisers, on which it promised an experience like no other. An advert at the time offered passengers an "overnight to Europe in your own private stateroom".

"The Stratocruiser was the height of 1950s flying luxury and would reign as queen of the skies until 1958 when the Boeing 707 jet service was inaugurated," writes M Kelly Cusack, on his website Everything Pan Am

After the Second World War, Pan Am rebranded its first-class offering from Blue Ribbon service to The President. Guests were treated to the closest to airborne Silver Service ever witnessed at 30,000 feet, replete with bone china, silver cutlery and lavish meals, including whole lobsters and racks of lamb. On the Stratocruiser, a lower deck meant that a limited number of berths were available, where breakfast was served in bed.


Pan Am was not alone in boasting a first class. 

TWA (Trans World Airlines) created its own offering in the Fifties too. The airline flew a plane named the Star of California from Los Angeles to New York, creating a reputation for itself as the "airline of the stars", with famous passengers including Cary Grant, William Powell and Myrna Loy.

The UK's flag carrier, British Airways, which (along with its predecessor) has a history dating back 100 years, had been in on the act since 1927 when it launched its 18-seat Silver Wings flights, "a service de luxe" between Croydon and Paris. 

Advertising material stated that stewards "would point out places of interest en route, attend to the comfort of passengers and serve light refreshments from the buffet". The return fare for the 2hrs 30mins trip was 11 pounds and 11 shillings (the equivalent of £2,657 today).

BA – then BOAC – joined Pan Am in launching a first-class service when it bought its own Stratocruisers. Passengers were served six-course dinners, afternoon teas, cocktails and canapés – menus for "invalids, infants, vegetarians etc" and available if requested in advance.

By 1952, the Silver Wings service, this time departing Heathrow, was an elaborate affair en route to Paris, with the flight deliberately slowed to 80 minutes so that its 40 passengers could enjoy a leisurely lunch. 

After the Jet Age began, aircraft grew in size and reliability and by the Seventies airlines were eyeing up a class in between cattle and first, which is where business came into play. 

Those at the front of the queue included Dutch airline KLM, Air Canada, American Airlines, El Al and Air France. BA introduced Club World in October 1978, while Pan Am announced Clipper Class in July of the same year. Qantas says it was the first airline in the world to introduce Business Class air travel, doing so in 1979. In the same year, it became the only all-747 airline in the world.

Early business class might have been as basic as simply sitting at the front of the economy cabin, closest to First Class, but most had larger seats with more legroom, and more impressive dining options.

And ever since, the evolution of business class – to fully flat beds, as previously mentioned with regards to British Airways in 2000, and improved entertainment – has encouraged more airlines to drop their first class cabin, and introduce instead a premium economy. But that's another story.

The key lesson is that as long as there have been people willing to pay to travel by air, there have been people willing to pay more to travel by air in first class. 

The Telegraph, London

See also: Airline review: Singapore Airlines first class is the flight experience of a lifetime

See also: How 100 years of British Airways changed aviation