The history of commercial aviation in the United States from air mail to airlines.

Flying was new and daring in the early years of the 20th century. Traveling by airplane was rare. Airlines, airliners, airports, air routes—none of these existed. But by century's end, you could travel to almost anywhere in America by air in a matter of hours. How did this revolutionary change happen?

Explore Passenger Flight by Era

Airmail & The Start of Commercial Aviation

The new field of air transportation was risky business. Early airlines proved unprofitable. They flew and then folded. The airline industry could not get off the ground. 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. 

Early Passenger Flight, 1914-1941

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.

What happened during World War II?

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. Learn more about the role of commercial airlines during World War II below.

Pan-Am & Pearl Harbor About the first world commercial flight The Air Transport Command About Air Transport Command How World War II Killed the Flying Boat About the flying boat The Berlin Airlift About the Berlin airlift The Era of Mass Air Travel Begins, 1941-1958

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.  

The Jet Age, 1958-Now

The jet engine revolutionized air travel. Powerful and durable, jets enabled aircraft manufacturers to build bigger, faster, and more productive airliners. Jet technology also enabled airlines to reduce their operating costs and their airfares. 

Dive Deeper into Passenger Flight

Flight Attendants Learn about flight attendants International Travel Read about how the world became more connected Air Traffic Control Learn about the role of air traffic control Governing Flight Learn about the organizations which govern flight Social Change in the Airline Industry

Sweeping cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s reshaped the airline industry. More people began to fly, and air travel became less exclusive—for some. Across the country, retail franchises were eliminating distinctive regional characteristics. Television reached into most homes. The automobile was transforming cities, and suburbs were consuming huge expanses of rural land. The interstate highway system was spreading across the nation, and a growing web of jetliner routes linked the country. Traveling from coast to coast now took as little as five hours.

Perhaps most importantly, people were fighting for equality.

Read about social change in the airline industry

Explore the Evolution of Passenger Flight through the Museum's Collection

The Museum's collection holds a number of objects related to the history of commercial aviation—from boarding tickets to uniforms, full size aircraft and archival photos—together these objects tell the story of commercial aviation in the United States. Explore some of these objects below.

The Flying Experience

In the early days of commercial flight, the flying experience was harsh and uncomfortable. To even get the opportunity to fly was considered a luxury. Learn more about the evolution of the commercial flying experience in the United States using objects from the Museum's collection.

View objects for commercial flight

Commercial Airliners

The Museum's collection holds a variety of different airplanes—from the Wright Flyer to the SR-71 Blackbird—these aircraft help tell the story of flight. Our collection of commercial aircraft, such as the well-known Boeing 747, help tell the history of America by air. Learn more about some of these aircraft.

View commercial aircrafts

Learn More About Passenger Flight Visit the Commercial Aviation topic page