Inflight Items This Page Updated August 13, 2000



Playing Cards

Fred Chan and Al Meder are the co-authors of the article on airline playing cards.  Both Fred and Al have been collecting playing cards for 30 and 20 years, respectively.  Together with Trev Davis and Luc Mertens, they have also compiled the Third Edition of AIRLINE PLAYING CARDS – An Illustrated Color Reference Guide.

Their article below gives an overview of airline playing cards, followed by sources and places to obtain cards, judging the value of a deck or single card, and pitfalls that may await a new or unwary collector.  Both authors will answer individual questions by e-mail.

Fred Chan:

Al Meder:


Long before movies and video games, playing cards (and magazines) were the only forms of in-flight entertainment provided by the airlines.  Playing cards also served as a low-cost advertisement for the airlines as passengers usually took the cards home as souvenirs of their flight experience.

There are almost 3000 different card designs known to have been issued by 438 airlines since the beginning of commercial aviation.  The oldest are probably the ones issued by Imperial Airways, predecessor of British Airways, sometime in the 1920s, judging from the illustration of a biplane and destinations of Cairo, Baghdad, and Karachi.  Another interesting card from approximately the same era was the first card issued by Transcontinental Air Transport (later TWA), showing a Ford Tri-Motor parked in front of a passenger train, with the caption ‘Coast to Coast by Plane and Train’.  Back then, flying at night was not considered safe for passengers.

As commercial air travel became more common, airline playing card designs began to fall into five broad categories featuring:

  • aircraft in the fleet or pictures of flight attendants (always female)
  • colorful pictures of destination cities or travel posters
  • joint advertising with products or companies from other industries
  • designs specifically for children, sometimes tied into a promotional theme such as Disney characters, Snoopy, and Pokemon
  • designs which simply show a carrier’s logo without any elaborate artwork

Playing cards are often used to commemorate an airline’s anniversary.  Normally distributed for only a short period of time, these cards are usually much more difficult to come by than the common, ordinary designs.  Other ways have also been used to present an unusual image, such as round playing cards and expensive packaging (sometimes leather cases). 

Sources for Cards

Many years ago, card collectors could write to the Customer Relations Departments at the airlines which were more than happy to respond to their request for cards.  Those were the good old days before deregulation when marketing and advertising costs were simply part of the fare structure approved by the government.  (Remember the days when the seats were roomier and the in-flight meals were actually quite good ?).  When the airlines had to become competitive after deregulation in 1978, playing cards were one of the victims of cost-cutting programs.  Very few airlines now respond to requests for playing cards and other promotional items.  Friends at one airline have even reported that company policies prohibit the expenditure for the postage to answer a request indicating that they do not have cards!  In a specific case recently, when the First Class lounge for a major carrier requested a single deck of playing cards from the Supply Department, it had to sign a requisition so it could be properly charged!

While most airlines do not give out cards freely, some do produce them in limited quantities for First and Business Class passengers or for sale to Coach passengers or for special marketing programs.  Sometimes children’s kits given out by the airlines may contain a deck of cards.  Also, cards are occasionally available for sale in company stores. This is where a network of friends and family members can be a valuable source for cards without much expense, perhaps for the price of an occasional glass of beer in return.  That is, provided they are willing to ask for a deck when they travel.

Airline cards are available for a price from several other sources, such as flea markets and garage sales, on-line auctions, and of course at airline collectibles shows.

There are still good finds in flea markets and garage sales, especially those in major metropolitan areas.  In many instances, some older decks have emerged from long forgotten caches in attics and desk drawers, and quick and alert collectors have been fortunate in acquiring them for their collections.  Prices are usually quite reasonable as most sellers are more interested in getting rid of the cards without knowing the prices that a collector is willing to pay.  Some cards are also available at antique stores but prices are generally higher than in flea markets and garage sales and the pickings much slimmer.

More recently, airline playing cards have appeared in abundance in on-line auctions such as eBay.  Some difficult-to-obtain decks have surfaced but most of the decks being offered are very common and are hardly worth more than $1 or $2 each.  Unfortunately, over-zealous bidding has driven up prices beyond expectations for some decks.  Hopefully, better knowledge would dampen such exuberance in the future.  In any event, many of the decks on auction certainly do not justify sellers’ descriptions of “rare, old, and vintage.”

Airline collectibles shows are usually a good source for cards and other memorabilia.  The annual Airliners International show is held at a different city every year and there are smaller one-day shows in various cities throughout the U. S. and Europe.  Since the sellers at these shows have been dealing with airline items for many years, they know the value of their merchandise.  Therefore, prices at these shows very accurately reflect the on-going market prices for card decks.

Probably the best source for airline playing cards is to develop your own network among collectors.  Many sales and trades exist between major collectors on a private basis.  As with other relationships of this nature, such a network can only be developed over many years and relies heavily on trust and credibility.  There is a small number of collectors who are excluded from existing networks because of their questionable behavior in the past.

Although all collectors are very aggressive in searching for and acquiring cards for their own collections, there are certain rules of etiquette that major collectors follow in going after the same item:

They do not butt in and try to outbid another person when that person is in the process of negotiating a sale or a trade at a show.
Many of the major collectors are personal friends and have agreements not to bid against each other in on-line auctions unless the first bidder has been outbid by a third party. 
When a deck is offered for sale, it is available to anyone willing to pay the asking price and should not be held back from a specific buyer in the hopes that the particular buyer may have a deck that the seller wants. 

Prices for Decks and Single Cards

In the final analysis, the value of a deck or single card is what a seller is willing to accept and what a buyer is willing to pay.  Of course, this varies from case to case even for the same deck, depending on how eager the seller and buyer want to complete the transaction.  However, the following estimates may serve as a useful guide:

Extremely Common: Less than $5 per deck or less than 50 cents per card.
Common:   $5 - $10 per deck or 50 cents to $1 per card.
Available:   $10 - $25 per deck or $1 - $2  per card.
Difficult to Find:  $25 - $50 per deck or $2 - $4 per card.
Rare:    $50 - $100 per deck or $5 - $7 per card.
Extremely Rare:  Higher than $100 per deck or $7+ per card.

The above estimates are for sealed decks.  Opened or used decks would be proportionally less.  If you are not certain as to which category a deck or single card belongs, you should consult another collector who is familiar with the situation.

Pitfalls to Watch For

Most decks come from the manufacturers sealed in cellophane.  Since sealed decks are more valuable than opened decks, the cellophane wrapper is kept intact as much as possible.   What shows through the wrapper is the actual card design - most of the time.  Sometimes, and for no discernible reason, a different “cover” card is used and this leads to the confusion that it is a different deck when, in fact, the deck underneath the cover card is a common deck that has been known for a long time.

Fortunately, the number of cases when this has happened is very small.  We know of only five cases (out of a total of about 3000 airline cards known) but they have caused sufficient confusion among collectors (not to mention money ill-spent by some buyers) to merit attention here.  These are cover cards only and a corresponding deck does not exist:

  • Continental Airlines Cargo
  • Japan Air Lines DC-8 Jet Courier
  • Korean Air Lines - Boeing 707 aircraft in flight to the right
  • Piedmont Airlines - Horizontal card showing rear right quarter view of Boeing 737 aircraft and “Fly Piedmont”
  • Western Airlines Cargo

Of course, there are probably other cover cards we do not know about, so what should you do when you stumble upon what you think might be a really rare deck ?  An authoritative reference source (personal or published) should be able to tell you whether it is legitimate.  If not, you can go on the assumption that if it is from a small or unknown carrier, it is probably a good bet because not all the cards from small airlines are known to collectors.  If it is from a large airline, you might want to be more careful because their cards have been issued in thousands of copies and most designs are generally known.  Still, if you don’t want to miss out on a rare find, you might ask the seller to remove the wrapper, indicating that you would pay for the deck on condition that the rest of the deck is the same as the cover card.  You would have to accept a rare but opened deck but that would be better than paying a premium price for a common deck. 

There are also decks which are packaged in boxes with a different design but this is not a major problem in identification as some boxes are not sealed at the factory and almost all decks have been opened by singles collectors and card players at one time or another, so the contents are usually known even if they are different from the box design.

One other thing to watch for is that some carriers have distributed generic cards packaged inside airline boxes or airline cards inside generic boxes. 

Collecting Decks or Single Cards

A question you should address early in your collecting is whether you want to collect the complete deck or whether a single card would be more practical. 

Collecting the complete deck is popular among many collectors.   Obviously, the task is to find the deck complete and sealed if possible.   This may be easy for common and recent issues but it may be nearly impossible to find decks of the really rare or older decks such as the Imperial Airways round deck or the Northwest Airlines Sky Zephyr deck.  The going assumption is that it would be virtually impossible to put together a complete collection of all decks known.    Nonetheless, there are many collectors who have collections of several hundred decks and some of the top collections have over two thousand different decks (about 2/3 of the total decks known).

Some deck collectors collect one of each design while others collect the various packaging options as well.  In years past, some decks were issued as a double deck (perhaps for First Class) and in two separate single decks (for Economy Class passengers).

If you collect decks you will need a place to store them.   While a few decks don’t take up much space, a large collection of decks will require you to give serious thought to storage.   Two popular forms of storage are a multi-drawer cabinet (such as a geology specimen cabinet) or a blue-print file cabinet.  Both of these have shallow trays or drawers which allow for maximum visual exposure without the need to handle the cards more than is absolutely necessary. 

There are three main advantages to collecting single cards:

  • they do not take up as much space
  • they are much less expensive than buying a complete deck
  • it is possible to get some of the rarer cards as a single whereas obtaining a complete deck may result in a lifetime of searching and waiting

Single airline cards can also be traded internationally with minimal postage cost.  The best way to store a singles collection for viewing enjoyment is to put them into plastic pages made for baseball cards.  These can be obtained readily at a sports collectibles stores at a very reasonable cost.   A page generally holds 18 cards when viewed from both sides.  These pages are designed for a 3-ring binder, so even a relatively large collection will not take up much space.

There are strong advocates for collecting decks and those for collecting singles.  Some collectors do both.    There are clubs around the world for collectors of singles and decks of playing cards but, to our knowledge, no club is limited just to airline or transportation cards.

The beauty of collecting is that you can tailor your collection to your interest and budget.  Generally speaking, a nice collection of playing card decks or singles can be put together quite inexpensively.   As in most collecting, much of the enjoyment comes from the “thrill of the hunt.” 

Happy hunting !!!

This category will cover items such as playing cards, safety cards, seat occupied cards, inflight magazines, overnight kits, flight bags, soap and of course, the ever-popular air sickness (a.k.a. barf) bags.