The Lawson C-2 visited Bolling Air Force Base in September 1919, on its way from New York to San Francisco.
The Aeromarine AS-1 in the early 1920s.
Walter T. Varney launches contract airmail service between Pasco, Washington, and Elko, Nevada, via Boise, Idaho, marking the true beginning of U.S. commercial air transportation and the birth of United Airlines.
Interior of Ford Trimotor with "club" type cabin furnishings.
The Pioneering Years: Commercial Aviation 1920 – 1930
According to the aviation historian Roger Bilstein, it is uncertain when the first scheduled passenger service in the United States began. Silas Christofferson carried passengers in 1913 by hydroplane between San Francisco and Oakland harbors. In 1914, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat line carried passengers between Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida, using a Benoist flying boat. The service was quite successful .
After the war ended, Alfred W. Lawson built the first multiengine airplane designed exclusively for passengers—the Lawson C-2 in 1919. But surplus military aircraft were a lot cheaper to buy than the C-2, and his plane did not sell. Next, Lawson built a “jumbo” airliner, the L-4, that carried 34 passengers and 6,000 pounds (2,722 kilograms) of mail. This giant plane, however, crashed on its first test flight, ending further development.
In 1920, a Florida entrepreneur, Inglis Uppercu, began to offer international passenger flights from Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba. He later added other routes including flights between Miami and the Bahamas and soon between New York and Havana, picking up passengers at stops along the way. He even extended his service to the Midwest, flying between Cleveland, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan. His Aeromarine Airways' 15 flying boats, dubbed “airborne limousines,” made more than 2,000 scheduled flights and carried nearly 10,000 passengers. But one of their planes crashed off the coast of Florida, four passengers drowned, and Aeromarine Airways went out of business in 1924.
It was the Post Office and airmail delivery that gave the commercial airlines their true start. In the early part of the 20th century, the Post Office had used mostly railroads to transport mail between cities. By 1925, only seven years after the first official airmail flight, U.S. Post Office airplanes were delivering 14 million letters and packages a year and were maintaining regular flight schedules. Airmail appealed particularly to bankers and other businessmen who regularly began to use it to move checks and financial documents more quickly, reducing the “float” on checks and the length of time that funds were idle and unavailable for use.
Once airmail became accepted, the government transferred airmail service to private companies. Representative Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania sponsored the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925, commonly referred to as the Kelly Act. This was the first major step toward the creation of a private and profitable U.S. airline industry.
After the Kelly Act passed, private companies bid on feeder routes that supplemented the transcontinental air route. This airway had expanded during the nine years that the Post Office had transported mail by air. Now the Post Office awarded contracts to private companies, and these companies would later become transportation giants.
New York - Boston—awarded to Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American Airways.
Chicago - St. Louis—won by the Robertson Aircraft Corporation with Charles Lindbergh as their chief pilot. Robertson would become part of American Airlines.
Chicago - Dallas—went to National Air Transport owned by Clement M. Keys, a financier. Keys would eventually develop National Airlines and own 46 other aviation properties.
Elko, Nevada - Pasco, Washington—won by Walter T. Varney, who would later merge with United Air Lines.
Salt Lake City - Los Angeles—awarded to Harris “Pop” Hansue of Western Air Express, which would merge into Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA).
Later, after Henry Ford had purchased the Stout Metal Airplane Company in 1925 and formed the Ford Air Transport Service, he was awarded the Chicago-Detroit and Cleveland-Detroit routes. He also produced the all-metal Ford Trimotor, called the “Tin Goose.” After three years carrying the mail, Ford returned to manufacturing.
In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge appointed a board to develop a national aviation policy, selecting Dwight Morrow as chairman. Morrow was a senior partner in J.P. Morgan's bank and later would become the father-in-law of Charles Lindbergh. Morrow counseled that airlines should not be directly subsidized, but rather supported by federal funding of a national air transportation system. Congress adopted these recommendations in the Air Commerce Act of 1926, which authorized the Secretary of Commerce to designate air routes, develop air navigation systems, license pilots and aircraft, and investigate accidents.
Congress also adopted the board's recommendation for airmail contracting by amending the Kelly Act. With this change, the government began paying carriers according to the weight of the mail. This was a tremendous financial boost to the airlines.
The 1920s also saw advancements in research and training. Harry Guggenheim, the son of a multimillionaire, an ex-navy pilot, and an aviation enthusiast, established a foundation in the late 1920s to teach aeronautical engineers at universities and develop flight instruments. Guggenheim also funded Western Air Express with $180,000 in an experiment to see if airlines could profit from passenger fares alone. Western flew 5,000 passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in its first year with a flawless time and safety record. Yet, the company could not make enough money to survive without airmail subsidies.
Repeatedly, the dreamers in commercial aviation would invest in ventures that failed. However, when Charles A. Lindbergh made his famous solo flight to Paris in May 1927, his flight set off a Wall Street rush to invest in aviation. His accomplishment fueled the development of commercial aviation. Between 1927 and 1929, investments in aviation stocks tripled.
By the end of the 1920s, travelers could still cross the country faster by train than by air. Airplanes had to fly around mountains, could not fly safely at night, and had to land frequently to refuel. Flying by air was uncomfortable and some passengers wore overalls, helmets, and goggles. The airplanes were uninsulated thin sheets of metal, rattling in the wind, and passengers stuck cotton in their ears to stop the noise. Cabins were unpressurized—passengers chewed gum to equalize the air pressure. Nevertheless, more and more people were flying. The number of airline passengers in the United States grew from less than 6,000 in 1926 to approximately 173,000 in 1929. Businessmen comprised most of the passengers, and more and more companies would pay for their employees to travel by air.
The Ford Trimotor 5-AT was used by almost all the U.S. airlines. Introduced in 1928, these planes could carry 14 or 15 passengers in its corrugated fuselage. It was produced through 1932, but these planes stayed in use much longer. One Trimotor 5-AT, built in 1929, was still being used in Las Vegas for sightseeing in 1991.
Also, at the end of the decade, new jobs began to appear at and around airports. Warehouses appeared and manufacturers began to build their plants closer to airports. Aeronautical schools began to teach students who would become the designers and builders of airplanes and the pilots and navigators who would fly them.
New technology was appearing that would allow future expansion of commercial aviation. In September 1929, a young U.S. Army lieutenant, James Doolittle, took off from Mitchell Field in New York, flew an irregular course of 15 miles (24 kilometers), and landed, all without seeing anything outside of his cockpit (the cockpit was shrouded.) He was using the first instrument navigation package, including a very accurate barometer, a Sperry artificial horizon and gyroscope, and a radio direction beacon for landing—all the result of research at the Full Flight Laboratory set up by Harry Guggenheim.
But despite the advances in air travel and the aspirations of businessmen who hoped to get in on the ground floor of a new multimillion-dollar business, airlines in the 1920s that promoted passenger-only routes lost money. Profitable passenger airlines would not be realized until the 1930s.
Sources and References
Allen, Oliver. The Airline Builders. Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books, 1981.
Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America 1900 –1983: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Revised Edition. Baltimore, Md.: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Donald, David, ed. The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 1997.
Editors of Time-Life Books. Our American Century: Century of Flight. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1999.
Ethell, Jeffrey L. Frontiers of Flight. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books. New York: Orion Books, 1992.
Legrand, Jacques. Chronicle of Aviation. ed. Mark S. Pyle et al., Liberty, Mo.: JL International Publishing, 1992.
Smith, Henry Ladd. Airways: The History of Commercial Aviation in the United States. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1942, reissued 1965.
Solberg, Carl. Conquest of the Skies, A History of Commercial Aviation in America. Boston, Mass. Toronto, Canada: Little, Brown and Company, 1979.
American Institute for Economic Research. “Consumer Price Index (CPI) Inflation Calculator.” United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics. http://www.aier.org/index.html; http://www.aier.org/colcalc.html.