Air Travel Before the Jet Age

By | July 11, 2019

test article image
Boeing 747 at gate. Source: (

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.

test article image
Early model Boeing biplane. Source: (

Early Days

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.