Airline Expansion and Innovation(1927 - 1941)

Airlines Take Over Carrying the Mail

Once the Post Office had established a reliable and practical air mail system, it turned over air mail delivery to private airlines.

Having established a strong economic foundation for commercial aviation, in 1925 the Post Office began contracting with private airlines to carry the mail. By the summer of 1927, an effective commercial airline system was providing reliable air mail service.

The federal government continued to shape the new industry by regulating the airways, guiding aviation's growth, and promoting safety and technology.

The Legislative Foundation

The Contract Air Mail Act of 1925 allowed the Post Office to pay private airlines to deliver the mail. Payments were based on the weight of the mail carried. The Post Office later added a subsidy to help offset airline operating losses, until more efficient aircraft could be developed.

To guide the development of this new industry, Congress in 1926 passed the Air Commerce Act, which established the Aeronautics Branch of the Commerce Department, the predecessor of today's Federal Aviation Administration.

Pen
National Air and Space Museum, photo by

Pen Used by President Calvin Coolidge to Sign the Contract Air Mail Act

Varney Air Lines Airplane
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Varney Air Lines Tag
National Air and Space Museum Archives
Varney Air Lines, a predecessor of United Airlines, carried the first contract air mail on April 6, 1926, from Elko, Nevada, to Pasco, Washington.

Pilot's License
National Air and Space Museum Archives

The Aeronautics Branch of the Commerce Department pioneered safety regulation, required the licensing of pilots and the certification of aircraft, and encouraged the development of navigation aids.

M. Clyde Kelly
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Air Transportation Pioneer
M. Clyde Kelly

Representative M. Clyde Kelly guided the Contract Air Mail Act through Congress in 1925. A progressive republican from western Pennsylvania, Kelly felt that the Post Office had accomplished its goals and that it was time to let more efficient private enterprise fly the mail. The legislation became popularly known as the "Kelly Act."

William P. McCracken
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Air Transportation Pioneer
William P. MacCracken Jr.

Aviation legal expert William P. MacCracken Jr. crafted the Air Commerce Act, which gave aviation a sound legal foundation. Under his leadership as the first Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, the Commerce Department pioneered safety regulation, required the licensing of pilots and the certification of aircraft, and encouraged the development of navigation aids.