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De Havilland DH 34

Imperial Airways flew to various locations in Europe using old De Havilland DH 34 airplanes.

Handley Page W.8b of Handley Page Air Transport

Imperial Airways used Handley-Page W8b planes to fly to various locations in Europe.

De Havilland DH 66 Hercules

On March 30, 1929, Imperial Airways flew its first flight from Britain to India using a de Havilland Hercules.

Armstrong Argosy

Imperial Airways offered a luxury service between London and Paris in 1927 using an Argosy aircraft.

Imperial Airways routes

The routes of Imperial Airways at the end of 1933.

The Beginnings of British Commercial Aviation

On August 25, 1919, at 9.10 a.m. a de Havilland 4A bomber, converted by the British Aircraft Transport and Travel (AT&T) company for passenger use, took off from London and flew to Paris in two hours. On board was various exotic cargo, including Devonshire cream, newspapers, mail, and leather—but also a lone reporter from the Evening Standard, who claimed the distinction of flying on the world's first regular daily international scheduled flight.

For Great Britain, as with most major European countries, the situation after World War I afforded a rich potential for the rise of commercial aviation. The war had played havoc on railroads, depriving people of a dependable means of transportation. There were also large numbers of surplus bombers from the war that provided a convenient resource for enterprising entrepreneurs. Even before the end of the war, the Royal Air Force had converted two Handley Page 0/400 biplanes for a modest passenger service between Calais, France, and the coast of Kent in southeast England. Each plane carried eight passengers at a time. Yet, at the same time, managers had to contend with the high costs of operating airlines for such small numbers of passengers. The risks of managing such expensive businesses nearly crippled the first attempts to establish commercial aviation in Great Britain.

Near the end of World War I, at least three companies in Britain took the opportunity to enter the commercial aviation market. The first to offer regular domestic passenger transportation service was AT&T, founded on October 5, 1916, as an offshoot of Geoffrey de Havilland's Aircraft Manufacturing Company. AT&T used surplus DH 9 (De Havilland 9) bombers that could carry one or two extra passengers. The early flights were quite risky and often ended in disaster. For example, on one flight from Paris to London during a snowstorm, the pilot, believing the plane to be over England, landed his plane, only to discover he was in a dike in Belgium. On another occasion, a plane flying over London in a fog barely missed St. Paul's Cathedral.

AT&T was joined by Instone Air Line and by Handley Page Transport, which offered services from London to Brussels and Paris. But with high operating costs and only a small pool of passengers willing to pay the high fares for air travel (about £5), the companies floundered. By October 1920, Handley Page had to stop its service, while six weeks later, AT&T cancelled its own scheduled flights. By February 1921, all British air commercial services had ended due to a financial crisis.

Help came from a most unlikely source—the British government. Sir Winston Churchill, the British Minister of War and Air, had initially been unsympathetic to helping these new businesses. Despite a recommendation from the Civil Aerial Transport Committee that the British government should help the aircraft industry, Churchill declared in 1920 that “civil aviation must fly by itself.” Eventually, Churchill had a change of heart and approved small subsidies to allow the companies to resume commercial services. In March 1921, temporary government help allowed Handley Page to reopen its London-Paris service. By the following year, the British government was providing help to four small companies, Handley Page, Instone, Daimler Airway (a successor to AT&T), and the British Marine Navigation Company Ltd. Other than Daimler's flights to Paris and Amsterdam, these service were mostly local, but the new airline services enjoyed some measure of financial stability because of government support.

Eager to expand services to far reaches of the British Empire, the government decided to take a serious look into the issue of commercial air transportation. In January 1922, the government set up the Civil Air Transport Subsidies Committee to review civil air policy. The Committee supported setting up a single British intercontinental airline by merging the four smaller companies. The government agreed to subsidize the new company with an initial amount of one million pounds and promised future support of an equal amount as part of a ten-year plan. Formed on April 1, 1924, Imperial Airways, under the leadership of Sir Handley Page, was the direct predecessor to what became known as British Airways. Imperial Airways' mandate was to serve as “the chosen instrument of the state for the development of air travel on a commercial basis.” Thus ended the first pioneering phase of British air transport. Between August 1919 and March 1924, the various British air companies had delivered nearly 35,000 passengers. Despite the dangers of early air travel, only five passengers and six crewmembers had been killed.

One of the primary goals of Imperial Airways was to maintain air routes to the far corners of the British Empire, mainly by transporting airmail to such places as India and Egypt. In anticipation of such flights, beginning in 1925, the airlines began surveys over some of the most hostile, waterless and dangerous areas of the world – over the Arabian desert and eastward toward India. To account for navigation and also possible emergency landings, Imperial Airways built outposts through some of these regions that included weather services, radio stations, landing grounds, and even a giant furrow that engineers ploughed in the desert to provide pilots with a sense of direction. Finally, on March 30, 1929, Imperial Airways flew its first flight from Britain to India using a de Havilland Hercules, a trimotor biplane that carried eight passengers. The standard trip was complex, difficult, and carried out in stages, from France to Italy to Greece to Egypt to Iraq and finally to India. The trip did, however, reduce travel time from three weeks by sea to only one week by air.

In addition to flights to far away regions of the world, Imperial Airways offered more regular and safe routes to various locations in Europe, including Germany and Holland, initially using Daimler's old DH 34 aircraft, and later with Handley Page's W8b planes. The Airways introduced a luxury service to Paris in 1927 using the Argosy G-EBLF City of Glasgow aircraft. Although accidents were common, the number of passengers who flew Imperial Airways grew dramatically in the late 1920s. In just one week in August 1929, for example, the planes transported more than 1,000 persons across the English Channel.

By 1934, Imperial Airways was an established entity and enjoying significant profits. Further routes were added to South Africa and Australia with plans to expand deep into the African continent, Hong Kong, and China. By this time, the company had become a major business entity in Great Britain, establishing commercial airline service as a mode of transportation that was no longer in doubt.

—Asif Siddiqi


Corke, Alison. British Airways: The Path to Profitability. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard. Aviation: An Historical Survey From Its Origins to the End of World War II. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970.

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

Higham, Robin. Britain's Imperial Air Routes 1918 to 1939: The Story of Britain's Overseas Airlines. Hamden, CT: The Shoe Press, 1960.

On-Line References:

Air-Britain. “Welcome to Air-Britain.” http://www.air-britain.com/index.html

Airline History Website. http://www.airline-history.co.uk/

“Imperial Airways.” http://www.imperial-airways.com/Menu_page.html

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the social and economic effects of technology..

National Center for History in the Schools

Era 8

Standard 2

The global consequences of WW I

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps to acquire, process, and report information