Air Transportation and Travel

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AIR TRANSPORTATION AND TRAVEL progressed slowly in the early years of powered flight. Few revenue-generating applications were developed before World War I (1914–1918), but capabilities advanced rapidly thereafter. Using army aircraft, the U.S. Army began airmail service in 1918 with a route from Washington to New York. Under auspices of the post office, service expanded steadily, with coast-to-coast routes attained by 1924. Growth led to the development of specialized mail planes. Aeromarine Airways, which operated flying boats between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba, and between Miami, Florida, and the Bahamas, began the first significant passenger service in 1919. Operations were too limited to ensure profitability, however, and they ended in 1923. The eighteen-seat Lawson L-4 of 1920, perhaps the first true airliner, was tested experimentally. Major progress came in 1924 with the Stout corrugated metal aircraft. Ford acquired the aircraft in 1925 and produced it as the famous AT-4 trimotor, the first multiplace (having the ability to transport passengers) airliner in service.

Between the World Wars

Air travel struggled through most of the postwar decade, and infrastructure development lagged. Airfields were few, as were navigational aids and pilot certifications necessary for safe long-range operation. Pilots flew under visual flight rules, although airmail led to both light and radio beacons. But air travel still was not an option for the general public. In addition to safety concerns, long-distance air journeys could be an ordeal with numerous stops, weather delays, and slow, noisy, uncomfortable aircraft. Only 6,000 air passengers were carried in 1926, and coast-to-coast service could cost $400.

Passage of the Airmail Act of 1925 (Kelly Act) and the Air Commerce Act of 1926 led to major changes. Airmail service was contracted to private firms, and payments were lucrative. The Bureau of Air Commerce was formed under the Department of Commerce, and it established programs for pilot licensing and airways development. But the United States still trailed Europe in scheduled service, primarily due to the distances between American cities. A major difference was that airlines remained private enterprises, whereas in most countries airlines were government owned. Some small carriers were also manufacturers. Ryan Air Lines of San Diego, which built the Spirit of St. Louis for Charles Lindbergh, was not untypical. The single-engine Boeing 40A of 1927 was the first combined passenger-and mail-carrying aircraft, offering coast-to-coast service in twenty-seven hours with two passengers. The Ford AT-4 was joined by the Stinson 6000, Fokker F-10, and Boeing 80 trimotors, which expanded passenger service although carriers still required the subsidy of airmail. The Lockheed Vega, an advanced single-engine design, also enjoyed success from 1928 on.

Few investors showed interest in airlines before the Lindbergh flight from New York to Paris in May 1927, which suddenly impressed upon the public the potential of long-range air transportation. Equally noteworthy, another single-engine airplane piloted by Clarence Chamberlin and carrying his wealthy backer Charles Levine flew nonstop from New York to Germany only two weeks later. Levine thus became the first transatlantic air passenger. The "Lindbergh boom" resulted in, among other things, the formation of some forty-four airlines by 1929. Pan American, founded in 1927 by Juan Trippe as an East Coast airmail contractor, became the "chosen instrument" for international passenger service. With Wall Street backing, large, complex aviation holding companies formed, generally through acquisitions that combined manufacturing with passenger and mail carriers. The most notable were Curtiss-Wright, United Aircraft and Transport (UATC), the Aviation Corporation (AVCO), and North American Aviation (NAA), largely financed by General Motors.

Business flying and limited cargo service also began in the 1920s. Corporations and wealthy executives used the Stinson Detroiter, a comfortable cabin monoplane, and the amphibian Loening Air Yacht. The potential of air cargo, especially for low-bulk, high-value, time-sensitive goods, such as fresh fruit, film, repair parts, and medicines, had already been recognized, and many airlines, including predecessors of later major carriers, were originally formed for cargo. Almost from the beginning, cargo planes were used for illicit purposes. Some individuals used air cargo to transport liquor during Prohibition. A somewhat comparable twenty-first century counterpart is the use of small aircraft and old airliners for covert transportation of drugs from Latin and South America.

In 1930, more than 40,000 passengers were carried per month, and airmail approached 800,000 pounds per month. But the fleet still was small, with only about 640 aircraft, of which 400 were single-engine. The Airmail Act of 1930 made the postmaster general the de facto head of commercial aviation. Mail rates were established by volume rather than weight, providing incentives for the development of larger aircraft and the growth of passenger service. Three transcontinental routes were awarded to Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), United Airlines (part of UATC), and American Airways (part of AVCO). But increasing allegations of a near-monopoly in airmail, with three companies, UATC, AVCO, and GM/NAA holding 90 percent of the market, led to the suspension of all contracts in 1934. The resulting legislation required true competitive bidding on contracts. New competitors entered the business, but lower prices led to losses for all. Air transportation was in crisis, exacerbated by the Great Depression.

In another reform, holding companies were required to separate their manufacturing and transport operations. United Airlines became independent from UATC, American Airways (later American Airlines) from AVCO, and finally Eastern Air Lines from NAA. In 1929, Pitcairn Aviation of Philadelphia, which operated airmail and passenger services as well as flying schools, sold those operations to NAA (GM), who renamed it Eastern Air Transport in 1930. In 1938, Eastern Air Transport was incorporated as an independent company under the name Eastern Airlines. Western Air Express (WAE), formed in 1925, gained the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating airline in the United States. Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), formed in 1929, merged with Western in 1930 to form Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), also held by NAA. Western became independent again in 1934, and TWA was acquired by Howard Hughes in 1939. Northwest Airways (later Northwest Airlines) was founded in 1926 for cargo and added passenger service in 1927. Delta began as a crop-dusting operation in 1924 and added passenger service in 1929.

Airlines, aided by technical advances in airliners, survived the depression reasonably well. American operated a sleeper version of the biplane Curtiss Condor, the first successful overnight service, beginning in 1933. Later that year the Boeing 247, a powerful ten-passenger craft incorporating retractable landing gear, controllable pitch propellers, wing flaps, and soundproofing, was an almost revolutionary advance. The design was at the request of United, and orders followed. Rival TWA then issued a specification for a new trimotor, then the favored configuration, but the manufacturer Douglas responded with a new twin-engine design, the DC-1, with a stressed-skin structure and greater streamlining. The fourteen-passenger production model, the DC-2, quickly displaced the 247. American asked Douglas for a larger sleeper version to replace the Condor. The result was the 1935 Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST), soon designated the DC-3. Although in the DC-3 served the sleeper role only briefly, its efficiency made it the industry standard both domestically and internationally, carrying 75 percent of U.S. passenger traffic by 1939. It was the first transport with which airlines could earn a profit on passenger carrying alone.

Transoceanic air travel was a long-held dream, but Americans never showed the interest Germans did in the potential of Zeppelins or dirigibles. Loss of the navy Akron and Macon airships further diminished interest, then the Hindenberg disaster in 1939 ended all consideration. The dream was realized with large flying boats, the feeling being that water-landing capability in an emergency was necessary for safety. Pan American's 1931 specification led to the development of the Martin M-130 for Pacific service by 1935. Sikorsky also built a series of long-range flying boats. The most advanced, the Boeing 314 of 1939, pioneered luxury transatlantic service. Low volume led to losses for both manufacturers and airlines, however, despite airmail subsidies. The disruption of service during World War II (1939–1945) and the subsequent demonstrated superiority of land planes for overseas transportation ended the romantic flying boat era.

Aviation infrastructure progressed in the prewar years. Airport construction was speeded under the National Recovery Administration (NRA) from 1933, and air traffic control (ATC), represented by the opening of the Newark ATC center in 1935, was an important step. The Air Commerce Act of 1938 created the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), which regulated the sixteen domestic carriers in routes and fares as well as the airways system. Another regulatory advance divided the authority into the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in 1940. The CAB, which regulated routes and fares, spurred development of long-range airways, further encouraging large airliners. Airmail remained important, but revenues were at market rates, effectively eliminating the passenger subsidy. The new category of feeder airlines serving smaller markets appeared in 1938. Small airlines also were formed in Alaska and Hawaii to serve the special needs of those territories, where surface transport was limited.

American air carriers recorded 3 million passengers in 1941, but the war ended commercial growth. The Air Transport Association (ATA), formed in 1936 to advance the interests of scheduled carriers, facilitated the industry-wide pooling of aircraft, pilots, and technicians into a worldwide transport system for the armed forces. Such cooperation precluded a direct government takeover. Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed designed large four-engine land airliners in the 1930s. Only the pressurized Boeing 307 entered service before the war, but the Douglas DC-4 served widely as the military C-54. The Lockheed Constellation first flew as the military C-69, but along with the DC-4 it led to a long series of postwar airliners.

After World War II

Victory was accompanied by high optimism for the future. Many felt the age of mass air travel had arrived and that air cargo held great potential. The National Airport Act of 1946 promoted development of airports, and ground-controlled approach was developed in 1946. Local service airlines, principally equipped with the DC-3, expanded. But local service, with frequent stops and small passenger loads, could not operate profitably and received subsidies through the CAB to promote development. The eleven "trunk" airlines served a truly national air network, with Northwest becoming the fourth transcontinental carrier in 1946. Internationally, Atlantic service resumed in January 1945, followed by Pacific service in November. Pan American still led the Atlantic service but was joined by TWA (Trans World Airlines from 1950). Braniff, Eastern, and Panagra served Latin America, and United and Northwest served the Pacific. Postwar optimism soon declined as airline finances, always shaky, suffered in the 1947 downturn. Most suffered massive losses, and many airliner orders were cancelled. But in 1948, the fleet totaled 1,023 aircraft for both domestic and international service, with Douglas dominating.

Profit difficulties led to several manufacturer withdrawals from the field. Curtiss-Wright decided not to enter the postwar market, and orders for the advanced Republic Rainbow, the fastest airliner developed to that time, were cancelled in the recession. Martin, after losses on its new models, withdrew in 1953. Boeing also lost on the large, uneconomical 377 Stratocruiser, developed from the B-29 bomber. Lockheed and Douglas prospered with their four-engine airliners, however, as did Convair with its successful 240/240/440 twin-engine series. All received major export orders as the United States dominated world airliner markets.

After the Korean War (1950–1953), prosperity finally came, accompanied by the formation of numerous nonscheduled carriers and charter services outside the regulation of the CAB. Cargo airlines, such as Slick, Seaboard, and Flying Tiger, were established. Many surplus military transports and retired airliners were converted into freighters. Scheduled air freight was difficult to manage, however, and route structures were often inefficient, leading to profitability problems and the eventual decline of all-cargo service. Airlines also prospered from contract transportation of military personnel and the formation in 1953 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, in which certain airliners were designated for military duty in an emergency. Airmail remained important but became an adjunct to passenger service. Carriers frequently protested, however, that they did not receive an adequate share of postage revenues. Air travel effectively drove passenger rail service out of the market and also posed a threat to railroads in certain freight services. Local service still enjoyed growth, but some carriers disappeared through mergers. For instance, Chicago and Southern merged into Delta in 1953. In 1956, scheduled carriers recorded 46 million passengers and 1.2 million air freight shipments.

The Jet Age

The major influence on the future of air travel was the jet airliner. Aided by military aircraft and engine technology, the jet airliner made long-distance travel faster and more comfortable than ever. The transformation involved major risks to both manufacturers and airlines, but prospects were so bright that four major firms, Boeing, Douglas, Convair, and Lockheed, entered the competition. Losses later forced Lockheed and Convair out. Boeing, with its brilliant gamble in developing the 707 for both commercial and military uses, established leadership. Jets were far more expensive than piston-engine airliners, and they were far more fuel hungry. They were financially viable only with markedly higher productivity. Airlines disputed the CAB's reluctance to grant fare increases, which the airlines felt were necessary to finance the new generation, but they still rushed to order. Production of piston-engine airliners ended in 1958, and passengers rapidly accepted the new jets. Fairchild produced, under license, a Dutch turboprop airliner for local service. But orders were few, as it simply was too costly for small airlines despite the greater passenger appeal and the efficiency of a new design. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), established in 1958, succeeded the CAA as an independent agency supporting technical development, safety and pilot standards, airways development, and implementation of jet services.

In another sector, the use of helicopters for city center and airport connections was felt to have great potential. Large turbine-powered models appeared beginning in the late 1950s, and helicopter airlines were established in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. But high fares and operating expenses made profitability impossible, and such services slowly faded. Helicopter use expanded, however, in such roles as executive transport, oil service operations, and bush operations.

Air travel continued to grow rapidly in the 1960s both in business and leisure travel, and the transition to jets was virtually complete by the middle of the decade. Yet the potential market remained largely untapped; as late as 1962, two-thirds of the American population had never flown. In 1961, Eastern inaugurated an hourly, unreserved shuttle service connecting New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston. There were major safety advances, although traffic growth strained the ATC system, and there was a growing conflict between increasing volume and safety. Busy airports experienced conflicts between scheduled and business aircraft operations. Noise pollution near major airports also became an issue, leading to engine "hush kits." In 1967, the renamed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) came under the auspices of the new Department of Transportation. New commuter airlines formed, reflecting growing demand, but they further strained the capacities of both the ATC and the airports. Former local service or feeder airlines continued to merge into regional carriers, and airmail subsidies largely ended by 1974.

In the late 1960s, the new generation of "jumbo" airliners, led by the Boeing 747, promised major advances in every aspect of air travel, including capacity, range, comfort, operating efficiency, safety, and costs. While the airliners were technical successes, their introduction was troubled, and manufacturers lost heavily. An American supersonic airliner did not proceed, as massive development expenses requiring government assistance, soaring fuel costs, and the sonic boom problem led the FAA to end the program. Only the heavily subsidized Anglo-French Concorde entered sustained service. Airline deregulation in 1978 was a landmark event. The CAB was abolished, easing market entry and acquisition of routes, and airlines were free to establish fares and schedules. Southwest Airlines, initially a Texas intrastate carrier stressing low fares, grew rapidly and profitably with deregulation, providing competition to major carriers. New discount airlines, most notably People Express, served the largely untapped market for no-frills service. In an interesting sidelight, rare in American business, major airlines enjoyed extraordinary management stability. Such pioneers as Trippe of Pan Am, Donald W. Nyrop of Northwest, C. R. Smith of American, W. A. "Pat" Patterson of United, Edward V. Rickenbacker of Eastern, Robert Forman Six of Continental, and C. E. Woolman of Delta led their companies for decades.

By the 1970s, cargo was some 20 percent of airline payload by weight. New cargo carriers appeared but in a far different form than previously. Federal Express, operating with high efficiency from a single hub at night, when passenger traffic was low, enabled economical shipment of even small parcels, providing major competition to the postal service. Emery Worldwide, United Parcel Service, and DHL Worldwide Express also competed.

Air travel growth continued into the 1980s, but financial stability remained elusive. Airlines were highly cyclical, vulnerable to sharp losses in any economic downturn. Most notably, during the three calendar years of 1990 to 1992, airlines suffered total losses of some $3 billion, more than the cumulative earnings of the industry in its history. A recession and vicious price cutting were major factors. But the proportion of the public flying rose steadily, and development of advanced airliners proceeded. Range had increased to the point that Australia and Japan could be reached nonstop from the West Coast, and twin-engine airliners served Atlantic routes. Regional growth led to a new category of jetliners with fifty to one hundred seats as efficiency increased to the point that smaller jets could be operated profitably on short-range routes.

In the Twenty-First Century

The total assets of U.S. carriers rose from $12 billion in 1969 to $117 billion in 1998. In 1998, the fleet totaled 8,111, of which 5,412 were turbine powered. Despite the greater productivity of airliners, the price of new ones rose relentlessly. The latest version of the Boeing 747 approached $200 million. No airline could afford to be left behind competitively, and large leasing firms, such as the International Lease Finance Corporation (ILFC), facilitated modernization. Early jets were so durable that some operated for thirty years or more, and the fleet aged steadily. Concerns over airframe fatigue and high fuel consumption compelled modernization, further pressing airline finances. Competition and the need for cost cutting led to a wave of bankruptcies and consolidations in the 1990s. Such famous names as Pan American, Eastern, Braniff, and TWA disappeared, and several smaller freight carriers declared bankruptcy. Some forecasts predicted that no more than three major airlines would survive. Similarly only two producers, Boeing and Airbus, remained. Regional airlines were numerous and were generally affiliated with major carriers, such as Comair's affiliation with Delta.

Despite financial pressures, air transportation was a critical component of the economy at the end of the twentieth century. Domestic traffic, 321 million passengers in 1984, rose to 561 million by 1998. United had a fleet of more than seven hundred airliners, and American and Delta had more than six hundred each by 2000. Perhaps the strongest indicator of the importance of the industry came after the hijacking of four airliners on 11 September 2001 in the terrorist attacks on the United States. Air travel was suspended for several days. Even after resumption, traffic dropped sharply, as much of the public was reluctant to fly again. Congress immediately appropriated some $15 billion in direct grants and loan guarantees to scheduled carriers, as many were in danger of financial collapse. The manufacturers also suffered, as many airlines postponed or cancelled orders in response to the drop in passenger traffic and reduced schedules. Nevertheless, long-term growth looked favorable.


Aerospace Facts and Figures. Annual of the Aerospace Industries Association.

Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America. 3d ed. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Davies, R. E. G. Airlines of the United States since 1914. London: Putnam, 1972.

Heppenheimer, T. A. Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation. New York: John Wiley, 1995.

Pattillo, Donald M. Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Donald M.Pattillo

See alsoAircraft Armament ; Aircraft Industry ; Airline Deregulation Act ; Airmail ; Terrorism .