In 1955, for the first time, more people in the United States traveled by air than by train. By 1957 airliners had replaced ocean liners as the preferred means of crossing the Atlantic. The era of mass air travel had begun.

Air transportation changed dramatically during and after World War II. New technology led to advanced piston-engine aircraft and new solutions to the problems of navigation and air traffic control. Regulated by the federal government, a few large airlines continued to dominate. Air traffic grew steadily, as declines in travel time and fares made air travel available to an increasing number of people, and the flying experience continued to improve. 

With revenues on the rise and new, more efficient airliners in the air, airlines no longer needed economic support. In 1952 the government ended its decades-old subsidy for flying the mail. While air mail remained a valuable source of income, airlines no longer needed it to survive.

Workmen exchange signs on the new FAA headquarters at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue in Washington, now the site of Constitution Gardens.

The Need for Regulation

During World War II, casual air travel virtually ceased in the United States. A tight priority list ensured that only those serving the war effort flew. After World War II, passenger travel surged to new levels. The federal government reorganized its regulatory agencies to manage the rapidly growing airline industry. New carriers emerged, and new technology began to revolutionize civil aviation. Through the new Civil Aeronautics Board and later the Federal Aviation Agency, the U.S. government remained a guiding force, working to ensure safety and fair competition.

Learn more about the organizations that govern flight

The First Discounted Fares

The Civil Aeronautics Board's efforts to limit competition on transcontinental routes were seriously challenged by scores of new airlines that emerged after World War II. These nonscheduled airlines, or "non-skeds," carried cargo and passengers on irregular or charter services. By combining their resources, some non-skeds were able to offer transcontinental service at discount fares, which other airlines were forced to match.

About fare wars

A New Generation of Airliners

Building on the advancements made in the 1930s, the new airliners introduced after World War II were built with profitable transcontinental air routes in mind. They enabled airlines to carry far more people at greater speeds, while providing unprecedented comfort for passengers and unprecedented profits for airlines. As a result, aircraft manufacturers introduced a new generation of large, four-engine airliners that soon dominated U.S. and international air travel and helped lower fares. The new airliners included the Douglas DC-4, Lockheed's Constellations, the Douglas DC-6, the Douglas DC-7, and the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.

Object Highlight Model of Douglas DC-7 Mainliner, United Air Lines

This resin and plastic cutaway manufacturer's model of a Douglas DC-7 Mainliner airliner was built in ca.1955. It features United Air Lines livery of white upper and gray lower surfaces. 

The Douglas DC-7 was an advanced development of the DC-6B piston-engine airliner. It was introduced by American Airlines on its New York–Los Angeles route in November 1953 and was the first airliner to provide nonstop transcontinental service in both directions. The fastest transport aircraft in service, the DC-7 cruised at 580 kilometers (360 miles) per hour. A total of 338 DC-7s of all types were purchased by 18 different airlines.

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The newly renamed Trans World Airlines became a serious competitor to Pan Am when it began offering overseas service.

International Service Expands

Pan American Airways was the nation's sole international airline before World War II, and it was strongly positioned to dominate postwar international service. However, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman both felt it would serve the nation best to have several overseas airlines. So after the war, the Civil Aeronautics Board ended Pan Am's monopoly, and other domestic airlines were allowed to open international routes. 

Transcontinental and Western Air, with its well-developed domestic network and proven record of overseas war service, quickly became a serious competitor to Pan Am. To reflect the airline's new international status, majority shareholder Howard Hughes changed the airline's name to Trans World Airlines.

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The era of mass air travel — for some

African Americans could choose to fly, but few did. Many airport facilities were segregated and discrimination was widespread. While the airlines were not legally segregated, airports often were. Throughout the South, inferior airport accommodations discouraged African Americans from flying. Until the Civil Rights movement began to bring about change, air travel remained mostly for white people. 

Learn more about air travel and segregation

What was it like to fly?

As flying became more popular and commonplace, the nature of the air travel experience began to change. By the end of the 1950s, America's airlines were bringing a new level of speed, comfort, and efficiency to the traveling public. But as flying became commonplace and jet aircraft began to replace piston-engine airliners, the air travel experience began to change. With the steady increase in passenger traffic, the level of personal service decreased. The stresses of air travel began to replace the thrill. Flying was no longer a novelty or an adventure; it was becoming a necessity.

Expensive to operate, sleeper service gave way to low-fare night coach service.

With airplanes becoming faster and passenger numbers increasing, airlines discontinued their plush sleeper service by the 1950s. Expensive to operate, sleeper service gave way to low-fare night coach service. The coast-to-coast eastbound flights became known as "red eye" specials. Passengers began experiencing physiological problems due to crossing several time zones within a few hours. Shortened or lengthened days or nights upset natural body rhythms and made sleeping difficult. Although later dubbed "jet lag," this was first experienced after long-distance trips on fast piston-engine and turboprop airliners.

The Era of Mass....Baseball

Play Ball!

The arrival of nonstop transcontinental service meant that major league baseball was no longer restricted to cities within a day's train ride, but could expand into new markets west of the Mississippi.

In 1958 both the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers found new homes in California. Even before the move, the Dodgers had acquired a Convair 440 for their use.