U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

Tupolev Tu-144

Aeroflot introduced its Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic airliner in 1975.

BEA C-47

BEA used this C-47 in 1946.

BEA Comet

Within Europe, BEA introduced jet service with the Comet IVB in 1960.

De Havilland Comet

On May 2, 1952, BOAC flew its first Comet 1 jet service to Johannesburg. The Comet completed the trip in less than 24 hours carrying 32 passengers, as compared to the Hermes, which had taken 32 hours.

British Airways Concorde

From 1976 British Airways operated the Concorde on international supersonic flights.

HH-104 Comet

Air France's first De Havilland DH-104 Comet 1A.

Air France Caravelle

Air France fully introduced a large fleet of SE-210 Caravelle jets in 1959 although regular experimental services had been flown by Air France Caravelle during 1956.

Convair 340

Convair twin-engine 340s were used by Lufthansa from the mid 1950s.

Alitalia Douglas DC-8

Alitalia entered the jet age when it introduced the Douglas DC-8 into service in 1960.


KLM began jet air service with the Douglas DC-8 in 1960.

Europe's Airlines After World War II

At the end of the World War II, many countries had at their disposal a large number of new airplanes and airfields equipped with the latest technology. Within 15 years of the end of the war, using these assets as a starting point, a number of international airlines became major participants in commercial aviation. In 1960-1961, excluding U.S.-owned airlines, the top airlines of the world were (in order of number of passenger-miles flown): Aeroflot (the Soviet airline), Air France, the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC), Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA), Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), British European Airways (BEA), Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), Alitalia (the Italian airline), and Lufthansa (the German airline).

In 1960, the United States had 58 percent of the share of world air traffic (in terms of passenger-miles), while European airlines accounted for 24 percent. An important difference in Europe was that, with a few notable exceptions, most passenger air travel companies that flourished after the war were state-owned and not privately operated.

Aeroflot, the Soviet state-owned airline, played a major role in reconstructing the Soviet Union after the war. Through the 1950s, Aeroflot expanded routes that stretched from the capital cities of Eastern Europe all the way to the farthest regions of Eastern Siberia. Its longest route was between Moscow and Vladivostok, almost twice the distance between New York and San Francisco. Aeroflot was the first airline in the world to introduce regularly scheduled passenger jet service with its Tupolev Tu-104 jets. In 1961, Aeroflot introduced the huge Tu-114 high-speed turboprop aircraft on nonstop flights from Moscow to Tokyo and North America. By 1967, Aeroflot flew the most passenger miles in the world, and the Soviet passenger aviation industry (represented only by Aeroflot) was second only to America's industry. Aeroflot introduced the supersonic Tu-144 airliner in 1975 but did not meet with much success. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 signaled the demise of Aeroflot. Its fleet of 11,000 aircraft was divided into dozens of little independent airlines after 1991. A new Aeroflot—named Aeroflot Russian International Airlines (ARIA)—was established in 1992, and now operates flights in and out of Russia.

The British, represented by BOAC and BEA, dominated European international air traffic after World War II. Following the United States and the Soviet Union, the British passenger airline industry was the biggest in the world by 1960. After 1945, BOAC inherited dozens of key routes across the British Empire that it had established during the war. Although it was unprofitable during the late 1940s, BOAC eventually gained strength by the early 1950s once it had finished converting its military services to civilian operations. BOAC became the first airline to introduce passenger jet service with its De Havilland Comet 1 aircraft in 1952. The airline weathered some hard times in the 1950s because of the Comet's failure but it bounced back in the 1960s.

While BOAC served Britain's international routes, the British government assigned BEA all short-haul air transport in Europe. BEA was officially established in August 1946 for that purpose, merging a number of smaller airlines. Both BOAC and BEA dominated British aviation well into the 1960s, although smaller independent airlines continued to exist. In 1974, the two airlines officially merged into British Airways. The new company's first major act was to participate jointly with the Anglo-French built Concorde in launching the world's first regularly scheduled supersonic service in January 1976. In February 1987, British Airways was privatized, and soon after, merged with British Caledonian Airways, a domestic British airline. British Airways remains one of the largest and most famous international airlines in the world.

After the formation of Air France in 1933, the airline created an extensive network of passenger routes in Europe, North Africa, and to other French colonies. Air France also helped French colonies start their own airlines. During World War II, the French commercial aviation industry split into a number of separate operators that, on January 1, 1946, were all unified again under the name Air France. By the end of the year, the airline resumed its substantial network of passenger services all over Europe and by 1952, Air France had grown bigger than either BOAC or BEA in terms of passenger-miles flown, making it the largest non-American and non-Soviet airline in the world. Air France was an early adherent of jet aviation and used both the British De Havilland Comet and the French-built SE-210 Caravelle aircraft in the 1950s.

While Air France was the official French state-owned airline, two smaller private airlines continued to flourish into the 1960s. The French government distributed routes all over the world between Air France, the Compagnie de Transports Aériens Intercontinentaux (TAI), and the Union Aéromaritime de Transport (UAT). Air France, however, retained its dominant position, and by 1992, it acquired all the routes of UAT and TAI. Five years later, another small airline, Air Inter that had formed in 1956, was merged into Air France. With British Airways, Air France began flying the supersonic Concorde in 1976. A catastrophic crash of an Air France Concorde in 2000 grounded the fleet but flights resumed in late 2001.

The wartime German airline Deutsche Luf Hansa (DLF) effectively ceased service at the end of World War II (although the company was not liquidated until 1951). There was no commercial airline activity to speak of in postwar West Germany until the early 1950s. In January 1953, private investors and the government combined forces to form a new company known as Luftag. In August 1954, the new company took the name Deutsche Lufthansa, more commonly known simply as Lufthansa.

The first German postwar passenger services (both domestic and international) began in earnest in April 1955. Lufthansa was one of the fastest growing airlines in all of Europe and rapidly expanded its services and aircraft fleet through the late 1950s and 1960s. Like most of the major airlines of the world, it entered the jet era in 1960 with the Boeing 707. A historic moment for Lufthansa occurred in 1990—after the fall of the Berlin Wall—when the airline resumed services to Berlin, 45 years after the end of World War II. In the 1990s, Lufthansa suffered major financial problems. As a result, the newly unified German government privatized the airline and streamlined its operations by selling off its non-aviation-related interests. In 1997, Lufthansa (along with United Airlines, Air Canada, SAS, Thai Airways, and later Varig of Brazil) formed the Star Alliance, the world's first multinational airline.

KLM, the national airline of the Netherlands, had mixed fortunes after the war. Like the airlines of the other great colonial powers such as Great Britain and France, KLM's worldwide network linked colonies to the homeland. Indonesia was one of the key points of this network but Indonesian independence deprived KLM of one its most important assets. KLM eventually regrouped and opened up new routes in Africa and the Middle East. By 1960, it ranked behind Air France and BOAC among Western European passenger carriers. The same year, KLM began jet service with the Douglas DC-8. A KLM aircraft was involved in the worst civil aviation disaster in history when one of its 747s collided with another 747 at an airport in Tenerife in the Canary Islands on March 27, 1977, killing 575 people. Through the 1980s and 1990s, KLM continued to flourish and became one of the largest and most dependable international airlines in Europe. In 1996, it acquired a 25 percent share in Kenya Airways, and in 1997, it signed a 10-year agreement with America's Northwest Airlines to operate jointly. A similar agreement was signed with the Italian airline Alitalia in 1998. In October 1999, KLM celebrated 80 years of operation with the claim that it was the world's oldest continuously existing airline. Despite years of growth, it was operating at a loss in 2001, and the airline is in the midst of some restructuring.

After its official formation in 1957, Alitalia served as the national passenger airline of Italy. In 1960, it entered the jet age when it introduced the Douglas DC-8 and French Caravelle into service. The airline also passed the one million passengers per year mark the same year. In the 1960s, Alitalia diversified into charter airlines and helicopter services. Alitalia divested itself of its British financial investments in the 1960s, and it became a completely Italian-owned company by the end of the decade. By this time, Alitalia was the third largest airline in Europe measured by passenger-miles flown. International deregulation in the late 1970s proved to be costly for Alitalia. The airline unsuccessfully tried to diversify into such areas as tourist companies and smaller airlines, but after a period of financial loss, Alitalia streamlined its operations. In 1996, it narrowed its focus to only passenger services. In 1997, Alitalia founded Alitalia Express, a regional low-cost airline. More recently, in 2001, Air France has been considering buying a part of Alitalia although a final action on the matter remains undecided.

—Asif Siddiqi


Davies, R. E. G. A History of The World's Airlines. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Davies, R. E. G. Aeroflot, an Airline and Its Aircraft: An Illustrated History of the World's Largest Airline. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife, 1992.

Trimble, William F. From Airships to Airbus: The History of Civil and Commercial Aviation: Volume 2: Pioneers and Operations. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

On-Line References:

“Aeroflot Russian International Airlines BA,” http://www.aeroflot.no/side2.html

“British Airways – Fact File,” http://www.britishairways.com/inside/factfile/overview/docs/history.shtml

“KLM – History,” http://about.klm.com/CorporateInformation/History/default.asp

“Alitalia Airlines,” http://www.boeing.com/commercial/aeromagazine/aero_05/textonly/a01txt.html

“Lufthansa,” http://www.lufthansa.com/dlh/en/htm/profil/geschichte/index.html

Further Reading:

Allen, Roy. Pictorial History of KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines. London: I. Allan, 1978.

Bray, Winston. The History of BOAC, 1939-1974. London, BOAC, 1975.

Campbell-Smith, Duncan. The British Airways Story: Struggle for Take-Off. London: Coronet Books, 1986.

Dienel, Hans-Liudger and Luth, Peter, eds. Flying the Flag: European Commercial Air Transport Since 1945. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1998.

Gaskell, Keith. British Airways: Its History, Aircraft and Liveries. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife Pub. Ltd, 1999.

Hayward, Keith. Government and British Civil Aerospace. Manchester, 1983.

Penrose, Harald. Wings Across the World: an Illustrated History of British Airways London: Cassell, 1980.

Pudney, John. The Seven Skies; a Study of B.O.A.C. and Its Forerunners Since 1919. London, Putnam, 1959.

Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable

Content of Standard

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

National Center for History in the Schools

World History

Era 8

Standard 4

The causes and global consequences of World War II.