Inflight bars of the past: a sky-high blast of retro cool

Step onto a plane blessed with an inflight bar – such as the Airbus A380s of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar, and Virgin Australia's new Boeing 777s – and it's hard not to reflect that this is a dose of retro-cool, a civilised nod to the golden days of flying.

But those days stretch back further than you might think. August marks the 78th anniversary of Qantas launching its Empire Class flying boat service between Sydney's Rose Bay and Singapore.

The route included three overnight stops en route to Singapore – at Townsville, Darwin and Surabaya – and the grand aircraft carried only 16 passengers in a series of "luxurious saloon" cabins, including a smoking lounge towards the front of the plane.

Qantas co-founder and then-managing director Hudson Fysh recalled: "Getting up out of his chair, a passenger could walk about and, if he had been seated in the main cabin, stroll along to the smoking cabin for a smoke, stopping on the way at the promenade deck with its high handrail and windows at eye level to gaze at the world of cloud and sky outside."

Boeing took the inflight lounge concept to a whole new level in 1949 with the debut of the Stratocruiser, which was based on the B-29 Superfortress bomber.

A bomb bay on the B-29's lower deck became the Stratocruiser's exclusive cocktail lounge, styled by celebrated US industrial designer Walter Teague.

Pan-Am was first to fly the Stratocruiser, and when the airline worked with Boeing on the creation of the 747 jumbo jet, it envisioned the upstairs 'hump' as a five-star restaurant above the clouds for first class passengers.

Other airlines were quick to follow Pan Am's cue, such as Qantas with its Captain Cook Lounge.

The business class lounge adopted a unique decor mixing nautical touches from the 1770s with the vivid colours and patterns of the 1970s.

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(Some 30 years later the airline considered a combo bar/lounge for its Airbus A380 superjumbo fleet, but couldn't justify the space required.)

Not all airlines considered these lounges as high-flying havens for the well-heeled.

Some, such as American and Continental, added economy or 'coach' lounges open to even travellers in the cheap seats.

(Mind you, 'cheap' was a relative word: flying was still out of reach of most people. In 1974 a Qantas return economy airfare from Sydney to London of $775 represented six times the average weekly wage. That same trip today begins at $1600, which is almost one week's wage for the average full-time worker.)

American Airlines dubbed its Boeing 747 the 'LuxuryLiner', but the jumbos it ordered in 1966 began to arrive in 1970 as the US economy was in recession.

Unable to fill all 300-odd seats, American ripped out 50 seats to create a living room-sized 'coach lounge' complete with a piano.

The airline then offered free first class travel to popular singers – foremost among them, Frank Sinatra – provided they put in some time performing at the piano lounge.

However, such moves were all about short-term survival in a soft market. Once the economy bounced back, so did those 50 economy class seats.

The strangest inflight lounge may turn out to be the one that never actually flew.

Boeing sought to recreate the Stratocruiser's below-decks lounge in the 747, carving out a space from the capacious cargo hold beneath the main passenger deck.

Dressed in lurid orange pile carpet and jungle-inspired patterns, the aptly-named Tiger Lounge is straight out of the swinging sixties.

Although the groovy below-decks lounge had no windows, the glass-topped bar allowed passengers to look down into a viewing port mounted on the underside of the plane.

Boeing constructed a mock-up of the Tiger Lounge in an attempt to sell the concept to airlines, but all of them passed on the idea, preferring to load the belly of the jumbo jet with profitable cargo.

If only Austin Powers had been in the market for a private jet …

David Flynn is the editor of the Australian Business Traveller website.