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
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
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.
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
NACA was supplanted by NASA,
and its various employees and facilities were folded into NASA.
Airmail - the Driving Force for
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
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
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.
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
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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30 Jul 2010, last update
21 Jul 2020
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