Well, you know the rest. Then and now: Is there really much difference? Or are domestic U.S. air travel's differences so subtle and incremental over time that we just don't notice it, like the old saw about the frog swimming in the cooking pot full of cold water being slowly brought to a boil until...dinner!
OK, I admit that my recent experiences in the air over the good old USA have been mostly on Delta Air Lines and on American Airlines (soon to be US Airways in sheep's clothing). I've also flown a few segments on AirTran (Southwest in drag), and on staid old Southwest itself. But I have avoided United like the plague since the unholy marriage with Continental, and likewise US Airways since they emerged from their satanic union with America West. And I'm also not flying every week these days, thank goodness, but I think I'm airborne enough to offer some opinions about "then" and now.
My summary opinion is that not a lot of things have changed that much, with one exception. Sure, the flight attendants' outfits keep morphing into new colors and styles, and aircraft interiors and seat covers look different. Most meals are gone, of course, even in First Class. In coach you can forget it. Bring your own, or buy on board, or fast for Lent.
Delta's premium liquor selections, which peaked in the 1980s and then declined, seem to have improved recently (if you like that sort of thing). For instance, their mini-bottles of gin are now Bombay Sapphire in real glass, a charming throwback, and single malt Scotch has been restored, too. Yes, this is a trivial thing, but it's an important creature comfort for me. On a recent Delta ATL/LAX flight to attend a cousin's 80th birthday, I enjoyed two delicious Bombay Sapphire G&Ts with fresh lime before drifting off for a snooze--and that was in coach, albeit Economy Comfort seating.
Speaking of which, the addition of what American used to call "More Room Throughout Coach," now dubbed Economy Comfort by Delta and some variant name elsewhere, is also a nice change. That is, if you can get into those seats. They aren't any wider, but the extra legroom makes them seem much less claustrophobic. Who wants the seat in front of you slammed back within inches of your nose? Doesn't happen in Economy Comfort, though if you get stuck next to some big fat fatty, I admit the experience is as dreadful as ever.
(Footnote: I'm a lifetime Gold on AA because of my Million Miler status with them, a status that allows me "free" access to American's equivalent to Economy Comfort, but only for 2013. After that, I have to pay for the privilege like the peons, while AA's Platinums and Executive Platinums will continue to book the comfier rows gratis. Doesn't seem fair at all. Thus I won't be flying AA starting in 2014 unless there's no alternative. As a lifetime Platinum over at Delta, meanwhile, I will continue to have access to the Economy Comfort inventory without paying extra even on international flights.)
Maybe the biggest pre-flight change from earlier decades is that most air fares have skyrocketed as airlines finally realized that by throttling back on capacity until demand exceeded supply, they could charge pretty much what they want to and fill every seat on every flight, even on midweek flights between two podunk cities. At the same time most airlines have leaned out their spare aircraft even at hubs--you know, the ones hanging out on the tarmac used to replaced broken airplanes or very late inbound flights. They don't have as many spare crews loitering around hubs, either.
The unintended consequence of these two factors (few or no empty seats and few spare planes/crews) is that when something does go wrong, as in a mechanical, or, God forbid, a weather delay, there are few alternative booking options when a flight is cancelled. It doesn't matter whether you are a Delta Five Million Miler like me or a full fare First Class passenger, either. The next flight--the one you might have easily obtained a seat on ten years ago when something like this happened--is almost always full or overbooked.
This happened to me twice recently. The most painful of the two experiences was returning from LAX via JFK on a red-eye with an onward connection to RDU. The overnight flight operated like clockwork, but the connecting airplane had a mechanical problem, and there were no spare parts at JFK (a major DL hub--go figure). The 7:30 AM departure was posted for a four hour delay, and I was certain it would cancel.
As a Platinum and Five Million Miler, I was given preferential treatment for alternative flights, though only after I squawked--except that there were no seats on any flight to RDU all day long (this was a Sunday morning). My tedious moaning finally resulted in a confirmed seat on a 12:30 PM flight from LaGuardia that was already overbooked (they simply bumped someone else with lower status and, no doubt, on a cheaper fare), but only after I had appealed my case to the most senior person I could find at JFK.
That story is not a beef about Delta per se. It happens with every carrier. If anything, I was lucky that Delta finally agreed to accommodate me on another flight, and I deeply appreciate what they did for me, even if it meant changing airports.
Most times that doesn't happen when flights cancel or a connection is missed due to a late inbound, and that's a problem. What are we very frequent flyers supposed to do now that airlines have figured out how to make money by keeping planes full all the time?
Another change I've noticed is that it's devilishly hard to get a domestic upgrade no matter what your status. Used to be I could count on flying sharp end on American using an upgrade about half the time; these days it's about a one in five chance for me on any AA flight. Ditto for Delta, though my success rate for upgrades used to be 80% or better. Nowadays it's no better than American, or even less. Sometimes I go for ten of more Delta flight segments without getting upgraded, despite my lifetime Platinum status and regardless of how much I paid for the ticket.
Finally, ending on a positive note, it's my opinion that gate personnel at DL and AA are much better at managing on-time departures than they were a decade or more ago. I've found this to be true at hubs and remote airports, and I am glad of it. A flight operating on time will make a connection or put me where I want to be when I expected and promised I'd be there. That's a vast improvement over the horribly inconsistent schedule-keeping of the eighties, nineties, and early two thousands.
My biggest lament? I just wish reasonable air fares could be found these days between any two cities. Sadly, cheap tickets are now as rare as a bipartisan bill in Congress to reduce the deficit.