Love it or hate it, commercial air travel is a staple of modern life. Even small and medium-sized cities around the world enjoy direct flights that can connect them to distant family and friends within hours. Despite the cramped seats and sketchy food, the long lines, discourteous seatmates, and apathetic customer service, aviation is a marvel and something to be celebrated.
Aviation industry publications estimate that more than 500,000 humans are cruising thousands of feet in the air at any given time, and more than 8.3 million of us fly every single day—that's more than the population of Denmark!
So how did we get here? Getting on an airplane is second nature, but few of us know how the industry operated before the jet age. It's a fascinating story of innovation and progress, and the one that we're going to explore today.
Early model Boeing biplane. Source: (gettyimages.com)
The first scheduled passenger flight on a fixed-wing aircraft departed St. Petersburg, Florida bound for Tampa on January 1, 1914. The aircraft, a biplane flying boat, carried fewer than 10 passengers per trip and made the 21-mile journey in 23 minutes. This was a massive improvement over the contemporary two-hour steamship ride or four-hour train service, and passengers who could afford the steep $5 fare jumped at the opportunity. Despite its relative speed, the service was short-lived, lasting only four months, but it began the model of scheduled and ticketed flights for mass consumption.
The first international commercial flight took place in 1919 when a four-seater biplane began shuttling passengers from London to Paris. These early flights were as uncomfortable as they were terrifying, but the thrill and cache of early commercial flight fascinated the public. New airlines began incorporating all over the world, and some of these carriers are still around today—Dutch carrier KLM, established in 1919, is the oldest continually operating airline in the world.
Illustration of Charles Lindbergh's 'Spirit of St. Louis.' Source: (gettyimgages.com)
The holy grail of early fixed-wing commercial flights, the first transatlantic route, wouldn't follow for another 20 years. Charles Lindbergh's famous crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 inspired innovative firms to compete for the prestige of launching the first service between North America and Europe. Several companies commissioned manufacturers to help solve the puzzle, but it was Pan American Airlines and Boeing that would eventually succeed in 1939.
The Boeing 314 Clipper double-decker flying boat—a marvel of its age, and the largest successful fixed-wing aircraft until the jet age—made the first crossing on June 28th, 1939 between New York and Marseille, France. Passengers enjoyed fine dining, a full bar, changing rooms, and seats that converted to bunk beds for the nearly 30-hour crossing.
Marseille, France. Source: (gettyimages.com)
Dawn of the "Golden Age"
Civilian transatlantic air travel largely ground to a halt during the Second World War, but wartime technological advances found commercial application in the late 1940s. From the introduction of pressurized cabins to improved engines and fuel efficiency, the comfort and speed of passenger flight increased.
The first nonstop transatlantic flight between modern airports took place in August 1947, when Pan American opened its route between New York and London. Intercontinental air travel was still a luxury, but prices began to fall as incomes rose during the post-war economic boom, and more people than ever before could afford the crossing.
The jet age was born in 1949 with the inaugural flight of the De Havilland Comet, the first purpose-built commercial jetliner that entered full service in 1952. Within a decade, the United States, France, Canada, and the Soviet Union would also begin producing passenger jet aircraft and the era of propeller flight reached its conclusion.
Low angle view of airplane at airport. Source: (gettyimages.com)
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, jet travel became synonymous with sophistication and status, and popular culture was consumed by a fascination with commercial aviation. This conception of the early jet age is alive and well, especially when crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in economy on a long-haul flight. The days of spacious seats, well-dressed passengers, and extraordinary service may be gone, but so are the exorbitant prices.
Today, an entire middle-class family can buy round trip tickets to Europe from the U.S. for less than the cost of a single seat on a Pan American Clipper 80 years ago. Jet travel today is a common and wholly unremarkable experience available to everyone, and despite our gripes, that change is a marvel of innovation and efficiency worth celebrating.