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article number 111
article date 03-13-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Will You Fly with Me? Airlines Have Improved from 1918 to 1946
by Lucien Zacharoff

From April 1946 Air Trails Magazine. Original title, The future of the World Airlines.

UNITED STATES air transportation is entering a new and most significant phase. New vistas, new problems and opportunities confront it. Emerging from war with a status matched only by military air power’s, the scientific business of passenger and cargo carriage by air is embarking on a still greater adventure. Apart from the U. S. airlines’ reputation for speed, safety and reliability, the air-transportation industry is now a social force of the first magnitude, on a global scale. If it is true that advanced land transportation built kingdoms and that sea communications built empires, is it an exaggeration to say that international air transportation is about to build a world?

If One World is our destiny and the Air Age a most powerful means to that end, then the United States is the undisputed leader in this difficult but essential march to permanent peace.


Countries of Europe, Asia, Australasia, Africa, and Latin America have been surveyed in the series on the world airlines. The time has come to examine the past, present, and future of the American air carriers. From the outset of their history they have led the world.

To appreciate, in the national and worldwide perspective, the extraordinary current developments as well as our foreseeable future in the air, we must take into account, however briefly, the short though dramatic history of the elements that have made for the growth of the air transportation industry. We will look at the development of American aviation up to the end of the Second World War.

The saga of regularly scheduled air mail opened on May 15th, 1918. Simultaneous starts were to be made from New York and Washington, with Curtiss JN4D Jennies meeting at Philadelphia. The northbound plane (starting from the Polo Grounds in Potomac Park) was forced down en route, but the southbound craft landed at Philadelphia, while its relay went on to Washington, making the first triumphal delivery in about three hours. The relay ship on its return trip then picked up the stranded mail and flew on to New York.

Present at the makeshift airport in Washington on the historic occasion were Woodrow Wilson and future president Franklin D. Roosevelt—during whose early administration was to occur one of the greatest crises in airmail transportation.

It was a none too elaborate start of the huge and still growing network of air routes along which there now flows a steadily expanding stream of passengers, mail, express. The primitive “airport” in Washington had its counterparts during the same period at Belmont Race Track on Long Island, Bussleton Field near Philadelphia, and others.

The beginning was crude. Yet, not long after the first flight there was a 90-day period during which every flight was made on schedule.

Curtis Jenny airplane on a 1918 US Air Mail postage stamp. From a sheet of 100 where the blue plate was accidentally placed upside down.

In August, 1918, Potomac Park service moved to College Park, Maryland, where an office shed was converted into three hangars. Bussleton boasted twin hangars. And so it went. It was not much of a trick to house the single-engine, open-cockpit, wire-braced mail plane in 1918.

From the Wrights first experimental field at Dayton, Ohio, through the early airmen’s cow-pasture landing fields and the Army and Navy improvisations of air stations, aviation had finally reached the milestone of establishing terminals. The first of these was typical of the rest for some time. It was a turf-surfaced 17-acre area, costing $110,000. It was equipped with a shed that was recognized as a hangar only thanks to its oversized front door. It was a far flight from our current $20,000,000 750-acre Washington National Airport with its miles of paved runways, five-story -modern structures, and 150-foot ticket counter, or from New York’s colossal Idlewild terminal.

These modern terminal facilities are a far cry from the first days of commercial aviation.

Although the foundation for the development of air transportation was the carriage of air mail, in recent years much of the earlier importance of postal cargoes to air transportation has disappeared. The reason for this is, of course, the fact that the main business of the airlines today is the transportation of passengers and cargoes other than mail. The growth of passenger carriage parallels the development in comfort and safety factors of American aircraft used on airlines. It is easy to understand why passengers formed only a small part of the very earliest air transport when one considers the types of plane used for the purpose. The Boeing 40, for example, while certainly a brilliant pioneer, hail accommodations for only two passengers, but it was essentially a mail plane. Safety factors, due to the absence of instruments and flying aids were necessarily low. Boeing, who had been granted one of the first mail contracts, designed and constructed a simple but serviceable mail and passenger carrying plane (the 40) in only five months’ time.

Boeing 40 mail plane. Small cabin was for passengers.

Today, of course, safety and comfort are commonplace in American air transport. Passengers board a plane in the firm certainty that they will arrive at their destination, while shippers have no qualms about sending an expensive piece of merchandise any distance at all by plane.

Ford and Stout, who, with Fokker, pioneered the field of the big transport plane, were among the first operators to find that air transport, from the standpoint of carrying passengers, did not pay off. Boeing’s attempt at a mail-passenger craft was, in a sense, backtracking from the bigger transports of Ford and Stout The big machines provided a measure of comfort and were safe. But it took smaller, more economically operated aircraft to begin to make passenger air transport a paying business.

Late 1920’s Ford Trimotor provided a measure of comfort and was safe.

When the first transcontinental air mail was inaugurated in 1920, two years after the start of the Washington-New York air mail run, the mail was carried by plane in the daytime and was transferred to the railroads for night carriage.

The story behind the inauguration of the night mail was dramatic. Anxious to prove the value of airmail and fearful that the incoming administration would give its appropriations the axe, an impressive night flight was planned by the post office department. Two planes were to fly from New York west, two from San Francisco east. Both westbound craft were forced down, while one eastbound plane cracked up. The other, piloted by Jack Knight, proceeded from North Platte to Omaha, where he had to take off without rest on the 700 mile flight to Chicago.

With few instruments and with only a few bonfires lit by public-spirited citizens along the way, to act as beacons, the dauntless airman flew into Chicago on time. Within 33 hours of leaving San Francisco, the mail was in New York. Air mail was saved.

Dramatic night flight made by Jack Knight, from North Platte to Chicago, in 1920, saved the airmail system.

Many old-timers hold that commercial air transportation dates from 1925. In February of that year, Congress passed the Kelly Bill, making possible the transfer of air mail carriage from the Post Office Department to private operators. This made investors sit up and take notice of air transportation.

There had been many attempts prior to 1925 to organize regular air transportation, but without government help they were doomed. For instance, there was Aero Limited, organized in 1919; with the coming of prohibition, it managed to carry 2,000 thirsty passengers between the United States and the Bahamas, but it couldn’t show profit. Another venture was Aeromarine of West Indies, Inc. Aided by U. S. and Cuban mail contracts, it carried 30,000 passengers over more than two million miles safely in four and a half years of operation, only to give up the ghost when it lost those contracts.

Fokker F10 had comfortable passenger accommodations for the late 1920’s.

The Kelly Bill granted broad authority to the Post Office to contract with private interests for the carriage of air mail. This, the Morrow Committee report later in the year, and the passage of the 1926 Air Commerce Act, gave the green light to commercial air transportation.

In 1925, the first five bids were accepted by the Post Office for the carriage of mail by private operators. Actually, eight routes had been advertised but only five attracted bidders. The five pioneering private airmail contractors included Colonial Airlines and Robertson Aircraft Corporation, both of which later formed a part of the nucleus of American Airlines.

Then there were National Air Transport, backed by many a financial wizard of the day, and Varney Speed Lines; both later formed a part of the United Air Lines system. The fifth bidder was Western Air Express, which is now Transcontinental and Western Air, Inc., one of the transcontinental trail-blazers.

The De Havilland DH-4 would continue to fly the mail throughout the 1920’s.

The Air Commerce Act of 1926 gave the Department of Commerce full jurisdiction over the licensing of equipment and personnel and over the maintenance of safe conditions in aircraft operations. It authorized the Department to build and maintain airways and other navigation facilities, except airports, and provided for an Assistant Secretary of Aeronautics.

In 1925, air transportation men realized that their industry was due for a long haul financially. They knew that even mail contracts could not reduce the large and continued expenses of replacing equipment. There was an over-all loss for private operators during the 1926-1930 contract operations. At first these losses were assumed by the airlines; later the Post Office absorbed them.

It was not long before larger and better equipped aircraft became necessary. Large multi-motored craft began to replace the earlier, cruder types. From the Ford and Fokker tri-motors stemmed the Boeing 247 which immediately antiquated the tri-motor. And the pace began to step up. So fast did it become that craft like the Douglas DC-2 antiquated overnight the 247 which had appeared in quantity only a short time before the DC-2. A further development of the DC-2 resulted in the DC-3, a ship on which the airlines came to depend for swift, economical service without the necessity of losing enormous amounts of money replacing obsolete craft with new. It remained standard for many years.

Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT or Mattox Air Lines) Ford Trimotor of 1929.
Douglas DC-2 of 1934 antiquated the tri-motor.

A process of mergers and consolidations of many small, lines into bigger ones got under way by 1929. The Air Commerce Bulletin listed 45 airline operators in July-December, 1939, operational statistics, It compares with perhaps half that number listed in a similar compilation by the Civil Aeronautics Authority today. United Air Lines, for example, grew out of the consolidations of Boeing Air Transport, Varney Air Lines, National Air Transport and Pacific Air Transport. Similarly, today’s Transcontinental and Western Airways (TWA) resulted from the merger of Mattox Air Lines, Western Air Express and Transcontinental Air Transport.

Certain changes were made in the method of air mail payments in 1930 with the introduction of so-called mile payments in place of pound payments. This bolstered the relatively weak position of the new transport industry. Until February, 1934, when all air mail contracts were cancelled, the airlines showed progress financially and otherwise.

Three great transcontinental air-transport systems, United Air Lines. American Air Lines, and TWA, spanned the nation by the Spring of 1931; a fourth airline was on its way to becoming a cross-country carrier. Three important routes cut the country transversely: one on the east coast, another from Chicago to Texas, and a third on the West coast. Thus, most of the important population centers of the country were served. By 1933, sleek three-mile-a-minute liners had replaced the old tri-motored types, operating over 27,812 miles of airways.

Fokker F10, like the Ford Trimotor became obsolete within 5 years of their introduction. The Fokker F10 was grounded with wing structural problems while the Ford Trimotor would continue to serve short routes.

In 1934, the incoming administration in Washington became dissatisfied with terms of the airmail contracts made under the old regimes. The contracts were summarily cancelled and the task of conveying the air mail given to the Army Air Forces. Within a short period of days there were over sixty-five crashes and twelve deaths resulting. Calls were soon sent out again for bids on contracts and the operators responded, often with ridiculously low bids in an effort to maintain their franchises on the air lines routes, a move which for them was a matter of life and death.

Despite these low bids, the development of passenger carrying eventually enabled the airlines to show a substantial growth in revenue. This further enabled them to put great effort into the development of passenger and express services so as to lessen their dependence on air mail payments.

It was an era of intense competition. Although passenger traffic grew, large cuts in the air mail payments and rising costs of ever improving equipment and operations kept the growing revenue behind the growing expense. It was for these reasons that the air transportation industry showed no over-all profits until the war years.

This postwar Douglas DC-4 is taxiing for a flight to Europe. You will enjoy its comfort and safety.

By 1936, the airlines felt keenly the necessity of common action. They formed the Air Transport Association of America for the purpose of promoting and developing the transportation of passengers, mail and goods by air. The ATA became a coordinating and stimulating force, and a central pool of experience, ideas, strength.

Three years later, the airlines setup a division of this association, calling it the Air Traffic Conference of America. This was designed to tackle the traffic problems jointly, instead of each airline trying to solve them in its own way. Today, teamwork is the industry’s byword.

Air transportation received another boost with the passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act of t938. For some years before that there had been a triple control over American aviation, consisting of the Post Office itself, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Bureau of Air Commerce.

In the year following the passage of the Act, the 1939 air transportation industry as a whole operated at a profit for the first time.

By next near the new Boeing 377 Stratocruiser will be flying. You will be flying high in a pressurized cabin. (source: Wiki author, RuthAS)

In the early days, air mail growth was measured by the number of letters carried. Later this method was outgrown and the measurements switched to the basis of thousands and then millions of pounds. By 1936, the airlines were accounting for 10,000,000,000 pound-miles of mail annually. In 1941, the figures had reached 26,000,000,000 pound-miles, and 1944 estimates surpassed 100,000, 000,000 pound-miles.

However, air mail payments are of declining significance to our domestic airlines. For the strong drive to develop passenger volume is bearing fruit. In 1935, air mail constituted 38.5 percent of all revenues. Since then, with the exception of 1938 and 1939, the trend has been downward in this category. In 1943, air mail provided but 20.8 percent of the airlines’ revenues. Though still an important factor, any profit or loss fluctuation is no longer likely to cause an agonized cry for “subsidy.”

It is noteworthy that up to and including the fiscal year 1944, the Post Office had paid out in over-all domestic air mail expenditures, including indirect expenses, more than $418,000,000. Yet, at the end of 1943 the entire deficit had been whittled down to about $60,000,000. As of today, it has been wiped out.

Most important in volume and profit, is the airlines’ passenger traffic which started its real development after 1930. By 1941, two of the airlines were listed among the fifteen foremost passenger carriers, the rest being 12 railroads and a bus company. One of the airlines was in tenth place, the other in fifteenth.

Boeing 377 Stratocruiser cabin mockup picture provided by Boeing. Next year you will experience this luxury.

No passengers were carried in the first years of air mail. In fact, though projects for air transport of passengers would appear from time to time, relatively few were carried prior to 1926. That year the entire industry carried only 5,872. In 1930, passenger carrying totaled 374,935; in 1940 the number was 2,959,480. In 1941, some 4,060,545 passengers were flown. In1942 and 1943 the numbers dropped because about half of the airliners had been taken over by the Army. Still, in 1944, air travelers numbered 4,668,330.

Failure marked the first experiment in transporting air express; in 1919. One retarding factor in similar attempts was the inability to obtain insurance at a reasonable rate, due to the general lack of safety factors in air transport of cargoes of freight. This obstacle held until 1927 when American Express, Sixteen domestic airlines, and three international American-owned airlines entered into an agreement. Later, a second express company was organized, but most of the firms in this group drifted back to American Express: by 1937, all of them were back in the fold.

It was the war period that had brought to an acute focus all the progress of the years before and that had also cast an astounding shadow of the even more spectacular events to come. The airlines’ record piled up under contract to the Army and Navy—a war-supporting civilian operation—includes, for the first three years of our participation in the war (for both overseas and domestic operations, 8,000,000,000 passenger miles and 850,000,000 ton miles of cargo.

Douglas DC-4 was proven in World War II transport duties and with modern airports as illustrated above, will serve your continental and transcontinental needs. In military service it is known as the Army Air Force C-54 and the Navy R5D.

Their cargoes included presidents and other chiefs of states, admirals and generals, rank and file warriors, munitions, equipment, doctors, nurses, blood plasma and whole blood, food, medical supplies, every conceivable kind of materiel, anything one cares to call out of a quartermaster’s catalogue.

One out of every five sick or wounded fighters was brought back to America by air. Only one patient for every 30,000 thus returned has died enroute, and he might have succumbed under any circumstances, certainly more readily if taken by the time-consuming and uncomfortable surface routes. A lion’s share of performance in bringing back to safe and adequate hospitalization and life the more than 800,000 airborne sick and wounded goes to the airlines, operating under contract in combined operations with the Army Air Force, Air Transport Command.

The Lockheed Constellation was also proven in World War II and will provide you safe and comfortable transportation at over 300 miles per hour. Shown above is the “Star of Paris”, setup for international flight.

Aside from the enormous all-round role played in the war by the airlines, making a substantial contribution to the successes of ground, naval and air forces of all the United Nations, there were episodes wherein transport planes, practically “single-handed,” would turn the tide of defeat into Allied victory.

It is a matter of widely known history that Britain’s Field Marshal Montgomery turned the tide at El Alamein only when air transports had delivered the tank-destroying shells; in that campaign just one U. S. air transport among many made seventeen round trips over the South Atlantic, in three weeks.

In war: Douglas C-54 (DC-4).

The Japanese assault on Dutch Harbor was forestalled when our air transports rushed bombs, pilots, and materiel there. General Chennault’s Flying Tigers and their Chinese companions in arms, though hopelessly isolated, kept up an unremitting action against the enemy, because American air transports had steadfastly kept up the flow of gasoline, aircraft parts, jeeps and other supplies over the treacherous Himalayan Hump. Similarly and if anything even more disastrously cut off from all other sources of aid and supplies, the valiant Marines on Guadalcanal received food and ammunition and hope because our air transports had gotten through.

A rather spectacular as well as extremely worthwhile undertaking of the American airlines was the revamping at modification centers of aircraft fresh off the production lines. In the first three years nearly 50,000 planes emerged from those centers with improved combat characteristics. This was a three-billion dollar gamble that paid off in untold surprises and damage to the Axis.

In war: Lockheed C-69 Constellation.

Rather unnoticed by the public, which paid more heed to the sensational battlefield exploits rather than to the many behind-the-scenes factors that make those successes possible, was the decision to share between the airlines and the Army Air Forces the celebrated Collier trophy for pioneering worldwide transportation “vital to immediate defense and ultimate victory.” That gives credit where credit is due—to the air-logistics organization and its contribution.

Although all wartime operations of the airlines were subordinated and geared to the goal of victory, the postwar objectives were often planned and discussed. It was obvious that the airplane as a peacetime carrier was due for progress as amazing as its unmatched function as a weapon.

Wartime developments, like radar, loran, jet propulsion, were not without impact on and significance to commercial aviation. Other deep stirrings, technological and political, were agitating the business of passenger and cargo carriage by air. Conflicting policies were being projected for postwar promulgation. The question of airports loomed larger than ever. And no interested individual was losing sight of the simple and hugely significant fact that despite the staggering military burden assumed by airlines, even in war their civilian schedules were soaring to record-smashing levels.

All this makes tile future of our air transportation one of the most pressing and interesting issues of the day.

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