Come fly with me: Exhibition resurrects glamour days of air travel


A new exhibition on Belgium’s former flag-carrier Sabena takes you back to the time when flying was the height of stylish travel

Up, up, and away

Crammed into too-small seats on a budget airline, pestered by constant announcements before the plane deposits you at an airport 50 miles from the city you actually want to visit… It’s easy to forget that flying was once the height of stylish travel.

The Atomium’s new exhibition aims to recapture those glory days, as it pays tribute to Belgium’s former flag-carrier Sabena, the world’s third oldest airline company, which met an abrupt end in 2001, after 78 years of operation.

Hosted in three of the Atomium’s spheres, Sabena: Travel in Style uses scale models, archive photos and old staff uniforms to resurrect the airline, whose employees affectionately referred to themselves as Sabéniens.

Models show the evolution of air travel, from early biplanes carrying half a dozen passengers to the contemporary giants of Airbus and Boeing. In black-and-white photos, families gaze into the window of a travel agent advertising flights to exotic destinations.

Visitors follow in the footsteps of those passengers from days gone by. You learn how people were weighed at the same time as their luggage, and how Sabena was a trendsetter with its canvas travel bags handed out to customers as a smart promotional tool.

Lean back and relax

The company’s golden years were in the 1950s and ’60s, when flying was an exclusive way of getting from A to B. A cutaway image of the plane on one of the beautifully illustrated safety cards shows a coat room and separate lounges for men and women, and there’s a menu printed on silk that was a gift for first-class passengers.

Photos show passengers being served lobster in their seats, or reclining with a drink and a cigarette. In other images, a child peeps out from a hammock strung up above the seats, and a woman wakes fully refreshed in her bunk bed.

Mind you, you’d want to get comfortable: the first flight from Brussels to the DRC took 75 hours, back in February 1925.

The stairwells are lined with retro posters, and though the exhibition claims to be an unsentimental look at Sabena’s history, it is clearly done with affection – a number of former hostesses attended the opening in their uniforms and there’s an unabashed sense of nostalgia throughout.

Curator Kristin Van Damme: “Don’t expect a wide retrospective, but rather a broad and airy exhibition that will equally please the Sabéniens and people who have never heard of Sabena.”

Until 10 September, Atomium, Brussels