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. Learn more about some of these early airlines below. 

St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line 

Flyer advertising St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, the first scheduled passenger air service (1914). Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line began flying across Tampa Bay on January 1, 1914. The flight covered 29 kilometers (18 miles) and took 23 minutes—11 hours less than traveling between St. Petersburg and Tampa by rail.

Map of first scheduled passenger air route from St. Petersburg to Tampa Bay, Florida. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Former St. Petersburg Mayor A. C. Phiel paid $400 for the honor of being the first passenger on the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line.

Former St. Petersburg Mayor A. C. Phiel (center), Pilot Tony Jannus (right); the airline's organizer, Paul E. Fansler (left). Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution. 

For its St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, St. Petersburg purchased a Model XIV from St. Louis aircraft manufacturer Thomas Benoist. The airplane could carry one passenger, who sat next to the pilot in the open cockpit. The Benoist was powered by a Roberts 75-horsepower, 6-cylinder, water-cooled engine. In 1914, the trip across the bay cost $5—more than $100 today. 

A Model XIV from St. Louis aircraft manufacturer Thomas Benoist flying over Tampa Bay. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Airboat Line safely transported 1,204 passengers across the bay. But without a continuing subsidy from St. Petersburg or steady income from tourist traffic, it could not survive. The airline closed at the end of March, just three months after it opened. 

Aeromarine Airways 

Aeromarine Flying Boats sign. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

For four years starting in 1920, Aeromarine Airways carried wealthy passengers from Miami to Nassau in the Bahamas and Havana, Cuba aboard flying boats. The overseas flights were a popular way for many to drink legally during the Prohibition era. During the off-season, Aeromarine flew between Cleveland and Detroit. Despite its initial success, the airline eventually ran out of money. It ceased flying in 1924 after safely carrying 17,000 passengers.  

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Aeromarine Airways' three Miami-based pilots and two mechanics pose on the fuselage of an Aeromarine 75 flying boat. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution. 

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Fashionably attired passengers pose on the Aeromarine 75 Cordeaux. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

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Aeromarine Airways flying boat Columbus. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

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Women in bathing suits pose with the crew of the Aeromarine Buckeye. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

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Aeromarine Airways' Model 75 flying boats Pinta and Santa Maria prepare to depart New York for Miami in 1920. 

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 In 1922, Aeromarine staff discovered a shipment of ice cream that they had failed to deliver to the Lighthouse at Bimini in the Bahamas. As a result, they held an impromptu ice cream party. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.  

Chaplin Airlines

Chaplin Airlines Curtiss MF Seagull flying boat. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Chaplin Air Lines flew wealthy passengers in Curtiss MF flying boats between Los Angeles and Catalina Island briefly in 1919. It was the first scheduled airline to fly in California.

Pacific Marine Airways

Passengers and crew on Pacific Marine Airways. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Starting in 1920, Pacific Marine Airways operated between Los Angeles and Catalina Island for eight years. Passengers and crew would take the occasional break to fish for tuna, as seen in the photo above.

Gulf Coast Airlines

Gulf Coast airline Curtiss HS-2L. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Gulf Coast Airlines flew from New Orleans to Pilottown, at the tip of the Mississippi Delta beginning in 1923. It provided a mail link with steamers traveling to or from Cuba, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

Today travelers have a vast array of airlines to choose from based on their destination, price range, and other needs. However, it was these early airlines who tested the skies—and often waters—that helped kick off the United States' commercial airline industry.

Related Topics Aviation Interwar aviation Commercial aviation
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