In 1929, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) started passenger service between New York and Los Angeles using a combination of trains and planes. Far-sighted investment banker and Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company president Clement Keys started TAT to demonstrate that flying passengers was now practical.

An advertisement for TAT. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

While airplanes could get people across the country faster than a car or train, night flying was hazardous. Pilots did not yet have the modern navigation tools used today. Instead, they practiced what was called “contact flying.” Contact flying involves navigating by keeping the ground in view and following landmarks. However, this became difficult in the dark. TAT sought to meet this challenge with an innovative approach: travelers took airplanes by day and trains by night. 

TAT hired famed aviator Charles Lindbergh as a technical advisor. Lindbergh selected the aircraft, chose, and planned TAT’s cross-country route, and oversaw the creation of all necessary airfields and installations. TAT and its successor, Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), became known as the “The Lindbergh Line.” 

Amelia Earhart with Charles and Anne Lindbergh (right) for TAT's first two-day cross-country service by train and Ford Tri-Motor in 1929. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
“I am simply amazed at the detail that has gone into this TAT line. They give so much care to comfort and luxuries…. And an aero-car to take you from plane to train for your night rides…. And a map given to each passenger so he may study the country."
—Anne Morrow Lindbergh

TAT flew the Ford Tri-Motor, affectionately known as the “Tin Goose.” The Ford Tri-Motor was the largest civil aircraft in America at the time. Its all-metal, corrugated aluminum construction and the prestigious Ford name made it immediately popular with passengers and airline operators. Noisy but reliable, the Ford Tri-Motor played a major role in convincing the public that air travel was safe and practical. 

A Ford Tri-Motor from the Museum’s collection. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

However, air travel was still an uncomfortable experience. The Ford Tri-Motor was unpressurized, so it flew at low altitudes and passengers were often bounced about by wind and weather. It was also loud. To communicate with passengers, cabin crew often had to resort to speaking through small megaphones to be heard above the noise 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. For context, that’s just 40 decibels from instant perforation of your eardrum (160 Db).  

Still, TAT air-rail service took a day less than by train alone to cross the country—that is if you could afford the ticket. A ticket for the TAT cost a whopping $338. In comparison, a new Ford Model A car from the same period cost $525. Early airlines had attempted to make passenger flight profitable before TAT, but operating costs were simply too high. Many airlines turned to government air mail contracts, which helped subsidize early commercial flight. 

A flight steward serving a drink to a passenger on a Pan American Airways Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor circa 1920s. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

So why the high cost? TAT didn’t have an air mail contract. It depended strictly on revenues from carrying passengers—the same fatal mistake previous passenger airlines fell victim to. While Keys’ idea met some of the challenges of flying in the early 20th century, such as working around the dangers of flight at night, he still lacked the technology to lower operating costs. Although well run, the company was soon in desperate financial shape. In 1930, TAT was merged with part of Western Air Express in order to save TAT from extinction. That new company became Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA).  

Related Topics Aviation Interwar aviation Commercial aviation Early flight Navigation
Twitter Comments? Contact Us
You may also like
Diamonds in the Sky
Luxury Liners of the Air
Drones in the Desert
Up To Speed