"America by Air" Gets Airline Boost

Posted on Tue, January 30, 2018

On my most recent flight I napped, I squirrelled away pretzels, and I read an inflight magazine about the top 10 cities to visit. Not once did I stop to think about how truly miraculous it is to get from point A to point B with relative ease, efficiency, and safety—I imagine I’m not alone in this oversight. Curator Bob van der Linden wants to change that.

“The airline industry is something people take advantage of, but it’s critical to the functioning of the modern world,” he said.

Van der Linden has dedicated his career to tracing the history of air transportation, helping  people like me—a ginger-ale sipping snob—better understand and appreciate just how far the industry has come. According to Van der Linden it has evolved from a, “tool for the very rich to a tool for the everyday person.”

Van der Linden will have a brand new opportunity to share that history through “America by Air.” The exhibition will emerge from the Museum’s multi-year transformation campaign with a refreshed layout, improved graphics, updated interactives, and new artifacts including the Lincoln-Standard H.S. and the Huff-Daland Duster.

Eight major airlines have come together to support the reimagining of “America by Air.” American Airlines, The Delta Air Lines Foundation, and United Airlines have contributed as lead donors with Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Spirit Airlines also supporting the effort.

artistic rendering

An artistic rendering of the reimagined "America by Air" exhibition. 

It is through this partnership that Van der Linden will be able to tell the story of another partnership that served as the foundation for today’s airlines. 

“People don’t understand where or why it happened,” Van der Linden said. “It happened because of direct action by the federal government to create the industry.”

In the early days of air transportation, the U.S. Government protected the airline industry from competition like the railroads. The government took over legal responsibility for the safety and economic prosperity of the industry through air mail contracts—a subsidy that lasted until 1952.

Early air mail was placed in heavy canvas bags and carried inside a special compartment in front of the pilot on most mail planes.

Van der Linden believes that this close public and private partnership in the development of the industry is why air transportation is now, “the safest form of transportation on the planet, hands down.”

By the mid-1950s more people were flying than taking the train or steamships, and in the years leading up to the industry’s deregulation, in 1978, air transportation faced few competitors. 

Fast forward to today, where at any given time there are approximately 600,000 people flying—that’s the population of Washington, DC—many of whom, like me, might take easy air travel for granted. Thanks to the reimagined “America by Air” visitors to the National Air and Space Museum will have a chance to see how the airline industry grew and revolutionized our world.