Jump to: Early Airlines    Aviation Becomes Big Business    The Modern Airliner    The Modern Airport    Air Traffic Control    Flight Attendants    World War II Begins

Commercial airlines initially struggled to get off the ground, but with help from the government, who awarded airlines contracts to deliver the mail, they soon began to flourish. Despite the Great Depression, air transportation experienced phenomenal growth and change from the late 1920s through the 1930s, before U.S. entry into World War II intervened.

As technology improved, aircraft evolved from World War I-style biplanes into sleek, high-performance modern airliners. A solid infrastructure took shape under government guidance through the Post Office and the Commerce Department, and regulatory reforms reshaped the industry. 

Passenger service took root and grew, and air routes spread across the country. But because air travel was so expensive, only the wealthy and business travelers flew. The flying experience improved but remained an often uncomfortable adventure.

Early Airlines

After World War I, many people began to operate commercial airlines. But every one of these early efforts failed because of high operating costs. Airlines could not make enough money carrying passengers or cargo. They needed financial help—subsidies—until technological and organizational improvements could enable them to become self-sufficient and profitable. 

About early airlines
Airlines Begin Flying the Mail

In order to bolster the growth of commercial air flight in the United States, the government awarded contracts to airlines to fly the mail.  

As it had with stagecoaches, steamships, and railroads, the federal government stepped in to foster a new transportation system. The U.S. Post Office began using airplanes to move the mail in order to help establish an air transportation system. Though there were a few bumps along the way, ultimately the air mail system successfully turned the struggling commercial airline business into a profitable economic power.

Learn more about air mail

Aviation Becomes Big Business

With the financial support provided by air mail contracts from the U.S. government, four large aviation holding companies soon arose. William Boeing and Frederick Rentschler of Pratt & Whitney formed the first and the largest, United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. Clement Keys formed North American Aviation and the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. Aerial photography pioneer Sherman Fairchild, Averill Harriman, and Robert Lehman created The Aviation Corporation (AVCO). While these consolidations promised greater efficiency, airlines still remained unprofitable without government help. 

Aircraft builder William Boeing, Philip Johnson, Claire Egtvedt, and Eddie Hubbard created Boeing Air Transport (B.A.T.) in 1927 to fly the mail from Chicago to San Francisco. B.A.T. was so successful that it acquired Pacific Air Transport. By 1931 these two airlines, along with Varney Air Lines and National Air Transport, were operating as United Air Lines. 

When Wright Aeronautical refused to further develop its successful J-5 engine, its president Frederick Rentschler, chief designer George Mead, and chief engineer Andrew Willgoos left the company to build their own high-performance, air-cooled radial. Working in the defunct Pratt & Whitney tool company building in Hartford, Connecticut, they created the Wasp. 

Reliable and efficient, the 425-horsepower, nine-cylinder, air-cooled Wasp became the preferred engine for many military and commercial aircraft, including the Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor and the Boeing 40A. The engine displayed here was the first Wasp built. 

Pratt & Whitney Wasp Engine


A model of the Boeing 40A.

Powered by Pratt & Whitney's Wasp engine, the Boeing 40A could carry two passengers. Thanks to the biplane's large payload capacity and low operating costs, Boeing Air Transport won the coveted air mail route from Chicago to San Francisco in 1927 and operated the route at a profit. 

Boeing developed a larger version of the aircraft, the Boeing 40B, which could carry 4,400 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of mail and four passengers. The pilot flew the airplane from an open cockpit behind the passenger compartment.

Aviation Excites the Masses

Charles Lindbergh's famous non-stop flight from New York to Paris popularized aviation in American culture.

STEM in 30 The Spirit of St. Louis

Charles Lindbergh gained instant celebrity when he became the first person to fly alone nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927 in his Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis. 

The "Lindbergh boom" in aviation followed: aircraft industry stocks rose in value, and interest in flying skyrocketed. Lindbergh's subsequent U.S. publicity tour demonstrated the airplane's potential as a safe, reliable form of transportation. 

Learn more about Lindbergh's role in the success of American commercial aviation in this episode of STEM in 30.  

Watch episode

The Modern Airport

Aerodrome, landing field, air field: all described places an airplane could take off or land more than once. But open fields and parade grounds were unsuitable for the growing commercial aviation business. Without a network of adequate airports, an air transportation system was not possible. 

As aircraft became bigger and passenger numbers rose, airports evolved to keep up. Air fields grew larger, grass gave way to pavement, and terminal buildings evolved from simple structures to architectural statements of modernity. 

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The Army Air Service helped design and construct a network of landing fields for the U.S. Air Mail Service. The design they came up with was a large, square, carefully prepared grass field with weather, navigation, and communications facilities. This one is Candler Field, Atlanta, circa 1927.

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Glendale, California, circa 1932. The first boom in airport construction, funded mostly by local governments, began in 1926. It was bolstered by the enthusiasm generated by Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight in 1927 and his subsequent 48-state tour. Despite the Great Depression, by 1931 the number of airports had doubled to 2,000.

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Union Air Terminal, Los Angeles, circa 1935. Modern airliners and increasing air traffic put a strain on airports and led to airport lighting, a national aviation weather service, radio navigation, and air traffic control. Heavier aircraft with wheel brakes made grass fields obsolete. By the 1940s, airports were building paved runways.

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National Airport, Washington, D.C., circa 1941. As passenger numbers increased, so did the scale of terminals. Architects were hired to design beautiful but functional structures, which served two purposes: to impress upon passengers that air travel was safe and substantial, and to epitomize modernity and progress.

Yesterday's Airports of Tomorrow 

Today's airports are basically the same as they were when they were modernized in the first half of the 20th century, but over the years airport designers have had some interesting ideas when planning for the future of air travel. 

From underground airports to floating fields in the ocean, these are some of their most radical ideas. 

About future airports
The Need for Air Traffic Control

As the popularity of air travel grew, so did the need for better air traffic control along the nation's air routes and especially around airports. 

Airlines first developed systems to control their own air traffic. However, a series of highly publicized accidents in the mid-1930s, including the crash of a DC-2 in which New Mexico Senator Bronson Cutting was killed, highlighted the critical need for a national system. 

The federal government stepped in, and in 1936 the Commerce Department accepted nationwide responsibility for air traffic control. 

Pictured: The first control tower to use ground-to-air and air-to-ground radio communication at the Cleveland Airport.

About air traffic control

The First Female Flight Attendant

In 1930, Ellen Church became the first airline stewardess after convincing Boeing Air Transport that the presence of women nurses would help relieve passenger fears of flying.

A nurse from Iowa, Ellen Church wanted to become an airline pilot but realized that wasn’t possible for a woman in her day. So in 1930 she approached Steve Stimpson at Boeing Air Transport with the novel idea of placing nurses aboard airliners. She convinced him that the presence of women nurses would help relieve the traveling public’s fear of flying. Church developed the job description and training program for the first stewardesses.

Learn more about flight attendants

What was it like to fly?

Flying was loud, cold, and unsettling. Airliners were not pressurized, so they flew at low altitudes and were often bounced about by wind and weather. Air sickness was common. Airlines provided many amenities to ease passenger stress, but air travel remained a rigorous adventure well into the 1940s. 

Flying was also something only business travelers or the wealthy could afford. But despite the expense and discomforts, each year commercial aviation attracted thousands of new passengers willing to sample the advantages and adventure of flight. 

Object Highlight Ford Tri-Motor

Noise was a problem in early airliners. To communicate with passengers, cabin crew often had to resort to speaking through small megaphones to be heard above the din of the engines and the wind. The noise in a typical Ford Tri-Motor during takeoff was nearly 120 decibels, loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss.

Compare the noise of the Ford Tri-Motor to other familiar sounds:  

  • Normal conversation: 60 dB 
  • Busy street traffic: 70 dB 
  • Vacuum cleaner: 80 dB 
  • Ford Tri-Motor during takeoff: 120 dB 
  • Threshold of pain: 130 dB 
  • Instant perforation of eardrum: 160 dB 
View Ford Tri-Motor record

Who Flew?

In the early years of commercial airlines, mostly pilots flew. Most early airplanes could carry only a single extra person, if any. Few passenger-carrying airlines existed, and none survived for very long. Those that did catered to wealthy travelers who could afford the expensive ticket prices. Except for the occasional hop in the spare seat of a barnstorming Curtiss Jenny, few Americans flew as passengers. 

As America's airline industry expanded rapidly so too did its capacity to carry passengers. From carrying only 6,000 passengers in 1929 to more than 450,000 by 1934, to 1.2 million by 1938, travel by airline was becoming more popular. Still, only a tiny fraction of the traveling public flew. 

Most people still rode trains or buses for intercity travel because flying was so expensive. A coast-to-coast round trip cost around $260, about half of the price of a new automobile. Only business executives and the wealthy could afford to fly. 

Flying Politicians 

Eleanor Roosevelt with a flight attendant.

As air travel became more common in the 1930s, more politicians took to the air. In 1932, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt flew an American Airways Ford Tri-Motor from Albany to Chicago, where he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president and delivered his "New Deal" speech. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt often flew around the country on the president's behalf. Commercial air travel still had risks, but flying grew increasingly popular with politicians, as the advantages of fast travel outweighed the real and perceived hazards. 

Flying Celebrities

Lucille Ball.

Air travel was popular with Hollywood celebrities, but their employers did not consider it safe. The film studios often put clauses in actors' contracts prohibiting them from flying, especially while filming a movie. But by the mid-1930s, the studios realized this rule was impossible to enforce, and they began to recognize the economic value of flying stars around the country to promote their movies. 

Airlines benefited as well when celebrities flew. It was no coincidence that an airline's name was featured in the photo when a celebrity's arrival was captured on film.

December 7, 1941 and the First Around-the-World Commercial Flight

Stranded. Six days from its home port of San Francisco, a luxurious Boeing 314 flying boat, the Pacific Clipper, was preparing to alight in Auckland, New Zealand, as part of the airline’s transpacific service when the crew of ten learned of the Japanese attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941.

First commercial flight around the world

The United States Enters the War

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, casual air travel virtually ceased in the United States. A tight priority list ensured that only those serving the war effort flew. As a result, aircraft flew more than 80 percent full, 20 percent higher than before the war. The military requisitioned 200 of the nation's 360 airliners, along with airline personnel. 

About airlines during World War II