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Airline Mismanagement

The US government in large part funded and directed the establishment of commercial airline service in the US.

So perhaps it is not surprising that as the industry evolved, they felt they had the right to regulate and oversee it as well.

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A History of US Airline Regulation

Part 1 :  1911 - 1926 :  Early Growth Prior to Regulation

This air mail stamp, issued in 1968, commemorates the 50th anniversary of the inception of air mail service in the US in 1918, a watershed event that marked the start of America's aviation industry.

Part of a series on US airline regulation and deregulation - see extra articles listed in the right hand column.



The airline industry in the US was in large part founded, funded and fostered by benign government support, participation, and control, primarily by the US Postal Service and its developing airmail services from the end of the first world war through to the start of the second (ie about 1918 - 1939).

Like many parents who are slow to recognize the maturity of their children, and therefore slow to 'let go', the benevolence and support of the US government atrophied into a persistent level of regulation that increasingly served less and less good purpose.

In this first part of our series on airline regulation and deregulation in the US, we trace the evolution of the US aviation industry, from the beginnings of commercial flight through to the start of the regulatory period in 1926.

Initial Steps Towards Airline Service

Airline regulation evolved over time, and when viewed through the historical perspective that applied way back whenever, it made sense to have regulation of sorts to start with.

The Birth of Flight - Sometime in 1903

Interestingly, although the Wright brothers are generally credited with being among the first people in the world to fly (on 17 December 1903, barely nine months after the world's first flight, by Richard Pearse in New Zealand, in March 1903), the US did not build on their success (and neither did New Zealand!).

World War 1, which started in 1914 for the European powers and their allies, but which the US did not enter until 1917, spurred the development of airplane technology and aviation services among the combatant powers.

Recognizing this, the US government formed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1915.

First Government Involvement - NACA 1915 - 1958

This body was tasked to undertake, promote, and institutionalize aeronautical research - activities that had little bearing on civil aviation but which were important for airplane design.

NACA started off with a committee of 12 unpaid members and with a budget of $5000 a year.  In 1922 it had 100 employees, and by 1938 it had 426.  In its final year - 1958 - it had 7,500 employees and $300 million worth of facilities.

NACA claims credit for developing the first aircraft to break the sound barrier (although the aircraft, the Bell X-1, was controlled by the Air Force and flew with an Air Force pilot - Capt Charles (Chuck) Yeager - when it broke the sound barrier).  They also claim credit for the first aircraft (X-15) that eventually flew to the "edge of space".

NACA was supplanted by NASA, and its various employees and facilities were folded into NASA.

Airmail - the Driving Force for Commercial Aviation

The development of aviation in the US was very much government controlled and managed, through the unlikely seeming offices of the US Postal Service.

In 1918 the USPS commenced offering a fast intercity mail delivery service that used airplanes (rather than trains or other ground transportation) to transport the mail between the cities.  In other words, this was an airmail delivery service.

This represented the birth of regular scheduled commercial airmail service.  It commenced on 15 May, and initially operated between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.

There had been earlier one-off special events that saw letters being transported by plane prior to then, mainly as a curiosity or novelty event.  It seems that perhaps the first ever 'airmail' flight was in 1911, a temporary service that operated between 4 - 8 October, with mail being flown between Kinloch Field near St Louis to the Fairgrounds Park in downtown St Louis, from which it was then re-dispatched onwards.

To put the 1911 date in perspective, back then planes typically had short range (150 miles or less), flew slowly (about 50 mph - slower than many trains), had a maximum altitude of about 5,000 ft, and a plane with one pilot could carry perhaps 100 lbs of 'cargo'. In other words, in 1911 trains provided a faster, more reliable, and more economical service than did planes.  In 1911 there was no thought of a regular airmail service, because trains were faster than planes.  But this quickly changed.

1920s - The USPS Operates the Largest Air Network in the World

When the USPS first arranged for mail to be transported by air, it made use of the US Army's aviation wing, using their planes and their pilots.

An initial fleet of six Curtis Jenny planes were specially purchased and modified - mail was carried in the space where the forward pilot would have otherwise sat.

But the Army did not want to be involved in carrying mail - particularly because it was at the time in the middle of fighting World War 1 in Europe, something which was of course much more part of their core mission and they resented having to take resources out of the conflict in Europe and deploy them instead to carry civilian mail in the US.

Accordingly, the Postal Service quickly formed their own air service, after only a few months of using the Army.  Over the next seven years, this was to grow to become the largest air network in the entire world.

1925 - A Transition to Private Companies

In 1925 the Air Mail Act authorized the postmaster general to use independent private companies to transport air mail, and it also set the rates for airmail postage and in turn the rates to be paid to the companies that carried the air mail.

It was generally understood that the purpose of allowing the Postal Service to contract with private companies to carry mail was to provide some funding and ongoing business/revenue/profit to allow private air service companies to establish air service.  The government vaguely understood and appreciated that there were strategic and business benefits to the country as a whole if it were to encourage the development of commercial aviation, in line with developments that were occurring elsewhere in the world.

The first commercial flight to carry airmail was on 1 July 1926, between Boston and New York, with an en route stop in Hartford.  This was operated by Colonial Air Transport, in a Fokker Universal monoplane, built by Altantic Aircraft Corp (Fokker's American subsidiary) and with a Wright Whirlwind engine. The plane could carry one pilot and either four passengers or up to 940 lbs of freight, and had a range of about 500 miles and a cruising speed of 98 mph.

Juan Trippe & Pan Am - a Future Built on Airmail

Of some interest is that this company, established in 1923, had a young Juan Trippe as its general manager (and one of its shareholders too).

Juan Trippe would go on to found the Aviation Company of the Americas (or possibly Aviation Corporation of America), based in Florida, so as to provide services into the Caribbean.  This company in turn became Pan Am, with its first flight in 1927 between Key West and Havana - carrying mail.  Mail routes defined a lot of the Pan Am growth around the world in the 1930s and 1940s.

Juan Trippe - and his airline, Pan Am - revolutionized much to do with air travel. He introduced the concept of coach class, was an early adopter of jet aircraft, and pushed Boeing to develop the 747.

He remained President of Pan Am until 1968, but remained a board member for some time subsequently. He died at the age of 81 in 1981.

1925 - 1930 :  A New Industry Rapidly Evolving

With the passing of the 1925 Air Mail Act, the Postal Service gradually disbanded its own Air Mail Service, first awarding shorter routes to private operators and then eventually passing on the trans-continental routes too. By the fall of 1927, the Air Mail Service was no more.

Flying the mail drove the development of air travel in the US during the 1920s, and both created new challenges and accelerated the development of solutions.  For example, because traveling from coast to coast represented about 32 hours of flying time, the Postal Service was keen to see the development of night flying so that the 32 hour travel time could be done all in a consecutive 32 hour period, rather than over the course of three days during daylight hours only.  (By comparison, it took a train five days to travel from coast to coast.)

Pilots navigated primarily by following visual clues provided by the landscape below.  They would follow roads, rivers and rail tracks, but at night these were hidden in the dark.

Even the daylight visual clues were merely that, and primitive compasses did little to help.  And so the Air Mail Service encouraged towns to paint their names on rooftops, and also to paint compass arrows and quadrants, to help pilots understand where they were and which way to fly.  They augmented this with huge concrete arrows set on the ground in the middle of nowhere, giving further visual clues to pilots.

Next came the need to add night navigational aids as well.  Initially this took the form of a land/air equivalent of lighthouses for ships - a series of rotating beacon searchlights located every 30 miles or so along the main cross-country air routes. These powerful beacons enabled the pilots to fly from one to the next to the next, and each beacon site had an emergency landing strip as well in case the plane developed problems and needed to land.

These visual aids were then enhanced by the first radio beacons.  Radar wasn't to appear until after World War 2.

With the evolving industry and growing infrastructure needed to support it, the government felt that the time had now arrived to introduce some order, and so in 1926 the first aviation regulations were enacted.  Please read on to the second part of this series covering the regulated period 1926 - 1979.

Part of a series on US airline regulation, deregulation, and whether or not there should be reregulation introduced again now - please see extra articles listed at the top in the right hand column

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Originally published 30 Jul 2010, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
1.  The Development of the Aviation Industry prior to Regulation 1911 - 1926
2.  A History of Airline Regulation 1926 - 1979
3. The Seven Reasons for Airline Deregulation in the 1970s
4. The Effects of Deregulation post 1979
5. More Benefits of Deregulation post 1979
6. Present Day :  Remaining Regulatory Constraints
7. More on remaining regulatory constraints
8. 2010+ : Should we Re-regulate the Airlines?
9. More on re-regulating
10. Why Re-regulation is a Bad Idea

Please see also
Is airline competition always fair?
Airline competition 1980 -2010 RIP


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