Deal Me In: The History of Airline Card Decks


Image: Nicolas Venturelli

Before movies, Wi-Fi or live bands, playing cards were offered as in-flight entertainment.

The earliest playing cards were used over 1,200 years ago during China’s Tang dynasty. It took about another 500 years for card games to find their way to Europe, and ultimately around the world. And it’s likely that airline passengers who braved the earliest enclosed-cabin airplanes played cards to pass the time during their long, noisy flights.

Pioneering airlines such as Britain’s Imperial Airways and Transcontinental Air Transport in the United States are known to have given out cards in the 1920s and ’30s. “But I would say their heyday was probably the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s,” says Dave Hofmeister, a playing card collector and historian. “I’m not sure when the collectible part of it kicked in, but I suppose that some folks just collected them to chronicle their visits around the world.”

Airline card decks fall into a few design categories. There are those simply donning an airline’s logo or slogan, such as United Airlines’ bright red deck with simple white typeface reading “Fly the friendly skies of United.” Others sometimes feature a photo or illustration of an aircraft from the fleet, such as Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A350 cards or Trans World Airlines’ Convair 880 cards. Some even show animated characters, like EVA Air’s Hello Kitty decks.

Meanwhile, some airlines chose to educate their passengers. British Airways offered “The History of Passenger Flight” cards, with drawings of noteworthy aircraft on each card. With a route map that included many far-flung destinations, Northwest Orient produced a deck called “Cards That Talk,” which included translations of common phrases in different languages, Hofmeister says.

“My favorite deck is from Air Force One, and it’s the Gerald R. Ford deck. I think I paid a pretty penny for it.” – Wayne Moore

Then there are decks with beautiful artwork. Delta Air Lines, for instance, is known for the “Cities” series of cards, which featured reproductions of its destination posters of the day. “I’ve got about 30 different ones like that, and they’re the ones I search for,” says Wayne Moore, a collector from Virginia with over 3,000 decks. And although it isn’t clad in airline branding, Moore’s most-prized deck spent time in the air. “My favorite deck is from Air Force One, and it’s the Gerald R. Ford deck. I think I paid a pretty penny for it,” he says.

But don’t expect to get wealthy collecting airline playing cards, Hofmeister says. “The generic decks that were produced by the tens of thousands for United, Delta and other airlines – even the ones from airlines that are out of business – are only worth a couple of bucks.” So, the next time you’re flying, ask your flight attendant if there’s a deck of cards lying around and invite your seatmate to a game – it’ll keep a decades-old tradition alive!

“Deal Me In” was originally published in the 9.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.