The birth of airlines in the USA

The first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight actually took place in 1919 when two English flyers, John Alcock and Arthur Brown, flew a modified Vickers Vimy bomber from Newfoundland, Canada to County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. While this won them both knighthoods and a handsome cash prize, they did not connect two population centers, since both Newfoundland and Western Ireland were largely farmland. What is regarded as the first “true” trans-Atlantic crossing between major cities, took place many years later.

The European powers, as we have seen, used the newly developed means of transport to principally connect their colonies to the seat of imperial power. Most of the flying was strictly during daytime, with the aircraft’s Captain hosting his passengers to a formal dinner each evening in a hotel! Though not without risk, (one co-pilot was eaten by a Nile crocodile en-route to Cape Town) the travel experience by aircraft was largely safe and hugely popular, being reported extensively in the press of the period.

Flying was far quicker than steamship, with a journey from the UK to Cape Town taking six flying days and to Sydney ten flying days, with nine overnight stops, the same journey by ship would take weeks by contrast. Today it takes less than ten hours non-stop to Cape Town from London, and around 21 hours flying time with one-stop to Sydney, with the aircraft flying all night.

The majority of the passengers on these early flights were colonial administrators, businessmen and military personnel. Travel was only for the rich or those on government business. The airlines were treated as an extension of the civil service and funded as such.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic the aviation scene in the USA was taking a very different turn. “Barnstormers”, intrepid airmen who would fly their craft into empty fields and offer rides for a nominal fee, had made flying a popular pastime already. Aviation mania would engulf America, when a tall, laconic pilot from Minnesota by the name of Charles Lindbergh, won the challenge to fly solo and non-stop from New York to Paris in the “Spirit of St. Louis” in 1927. This counted as the first ‘true’ north Atlantic crossing, between two large cities and it proved that air travel was a viable alternative to the steamships that ruled the day.

Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis

Lindbergh returned to New York after his successful trans-Atlantic flight to a rapturous welcome and a ticker-tape parade. Cashing in on the popularity of flying, another entrepreneur named Juan Trippe, seized the chance to get the US government to support private-enterprise in aviation.

With no far-flung colonies to administer, blessed with a continent-wide country and an excellent railroad system, passenger flights were not a pressing necessity. However, the US government understood the need to foster the industry and decided to do so by initiating an airmail system. This was initially flown by US Army pilots in military aircraft, but after much lobbying by Trippe, the US Government decided to privatize the service and called for bids from interested parties.

Over 5,000 bids inundated the Post Office, which chose 12 companies to start the service. Among them was a timber magnate from Seattle who built his own aircraft named William Boeing, who won the mail contract from San Francisco to Chicago for his company which he called United Airlines. The WW1 flying Eddie Rickenbacker’s Eastern Airlines (originally called Florida Airways) won the Miami to Atlanta run and Trippe’s Colonial Air Transport got the lucrative New York to Boston route. However, Trippe was ousted by the company soon after and the name was changed to American Airlines.

Undeterred by this setback, Juan Trippe went into partnership with Lindbergh, determined to have an airline. Barred from domestic airmail contracts, they won the right to fly between Miami, Florida and Havana, Cuba, the first international route of Pan-American Airways.

Pan-Am went on to be one of the world’s iconic brands, with pioneering routes to South America, Europe and China.

Meanwhile in Washington DC, a newly appointed Postmaster General named Walter Brown, set out to change the industry. In a series of steps in the 1930s, he decreed that the distance flown and the volume of mail that could be carried, not the individual number of letters, would determine airline’s revenue. He also encouraged the carriage of passengers on board airmail flights, ensuring that they were now profitable. Brown forced the merger of the many small companies of the time, following the British example. This meant that by the early 1930s, four companies dominated the airmail routes between California and New York. United Air Transport had the northern route centered on Chicago; Trans World Airlines had the central route via St Louis, Missouri; American Airways the southern line through Dallas. The Atlantic seaboard between New York and Florida was the turf of Eastern Air Transport. The Big Four had been born; United, Eastern, American and TWA would go on to dominate the US market for decades.

The Democratic victory in the 1932 elections, led to this allocation of routes been dubbed the “spoils conference” and the new US government stripped the airlines of their airmail contracts, awarding them to the US Army Air Corps. This turned out to be a disaster as the military pilots did not have the skill set required to fly the routes in inclement weather and at night, as was required by the demands of the mail service. Within weeks 12 Army airmail flights had crashed, killing many aviators and crews.

In an embarrassing reversal, the contracts were handed back to the Big Four, who had only to slightly change their names to qualify. Two smaller airlines also managed to get their foot in the door, with the Dallas to Chicago route being awarded to Braniff and Delta Airlines winning the Atlanta-Chicago leg.

This set the stage for the dominance of the US airline industry by these six large companies, with Pan American concentrating purely on overseas routes. The famous US Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which essentially converted these companies into public utilities for many years, further cemented the situation. This oligopoly had many repercussions, including the companies pushing the manufacturers to design better and more capable aircraft, which in turn led to the revolutionary DC-3 being developed for American Airlines – another story for another day.

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