Transportation Deployment Casebook/2015/Passenger Airliners in the US

Throughout the last century the development of air planes has had a role of ever increasing magnitude in our society. The advent of airplanes has allowed for almost every aspect of travel and communication to be greatly accelerated. Previously, railroads and ocean liners had been the dominating modes of transportation across continents and oceans respectively. In the short span of only 112 years since the first flight airplanes have become the primary means for almost any long distance trip to anywhere in to world, allowing for great distances to be covered in much shorter times.

History of the Airplane, Policies, and TechnologyEdit

At the Turn of the CenturyEdit

The beginnings of the airplane were somewhat slow before the first success, as is true of many new technologies. There were many failed or alternative designs that were experimented with through the years. Many early designs included flapping wings modelled after birds. Zeppelins and hot air balloons were also common, but they were heavily subject to the whims of the wind. It was not until 1901 that Samuel Pierpont Langley launched a gasoline powered version of his models which he called “aerodromes”. Although previously, in 1896, he had created steam powered models capable of traveling half of a mile. In 1903, Langley was surpassed by Orville and Wilbur Wright, who claimed the title of the first powered, controlled flight of an airplane. They tested their craft four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina resulting in a maximum flight distance of eight hundred fifty two feet over the course of fifty nine seconds. Through the following years they refined their design and ultimately released “The Flyer”, the world first practical flying airplane.

Over the next several years a number of minor advancements were made in the field of air traffic and design. Some landmarks include the first airplane take off from a ship in 1910 by Eugene Ely in a Curtiss Biplane, and a landing on a ship following three months later through the use of hooks attached to the landing gear. In 1914 to 1916, a rudimentary autopilot was first developed by Lawrence Sperry using a set of gyroscopes to both stabilize the craft and to adjust course.

It was on January 1st, 1914, in Tampa, Florida that the first scheduled air service was established. Glen Curtiss designed a sea plane which could be built larger than previous planes due to the lack of a heavy undercarriage. An auto parts maker by the name of Thomas Benoist constructed one of these sea planes to found the St. Petersburg - Tampa Air Boat Line. The line connected the two towns by flying across the bay – it covered the 18 mile distance in 23 minutes – a vast improvement over the two hour boat trip. Reportedly, the plane rarely exceeded an altitude of five feet above sea level. The line could only transport a single passenger at a time and charged a five dollar fee for a one way trip. It only operated for a four month period but its potential to replace boats as the primary mode of transoceanic travel was obvious.

Despite the proven successes, the general public was still afraid to ride in the newfangled flying machines and they were mostly seen as a novelty item. To couple this, the improvements in the technology were slow and most planes still only flew short distances at extremely low elevations. But as with many technologies, the onset of war changed this. When world war one began in 1914 the strategic advantages of airplanes became quickly apparent and significant resources were put into their advancement. Most notably was the creation of larger motors which allowed the crafts to not only be bigger but for them to be able to reach speeds of 130 miles per hour – more than twice that of pre-war aircrafts. Due to the war time clime, planes at this time were associated with espionage and bomb raids. However, some transportation routes were opened such as France and England using planes to cross the English Channel.

In 1917, the United States Congress decided that air transportation had progressed enough that they could invest in an airplane delivery system – the first time it had been attempted. They invested 100000 dollars into the attempt that started with a short route between Ney York and Washington D.C. with a stop in Philadelphia starting in May of 1918. A year later the beginnings of a transcontinental route were opened with a route between Cleveland and Chicago with the Rocky Mountains being spanned a year after that. Rotating light beacons were added throughout the country in the early 20s to enable nighttime flying – before this night runs needed to be done by train. The new capability to deliver mail purely by air allowed for the U.S. post service to carry envelopes and packages from coast to coast in as little as 29 hours. As the number of established plane routes increase post-delivery by trains and boats became continually less favorable.

Policies and Tech advances in the mid centuryEdit

By the mid 20s, the US government had lost the desire to continue providing the mail service. In many ways the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925, aka the Kelly Act, can be seen as the beginnings of the private airline companies throughout the US. The act sold the rights for privatized post-delivery to the highest bidders. The original five bid winners would merge, split, rename, and be bought out over the years until the modern day and are now parts of the current major airline companies. For instance, National Air Transport and Varney Air Lines would eventually become parts of United Air Lines.

About a year later the Air Commerce Act of 1926 was passed. The bill set the groundwork for the government oversights of the airline industry that the 1926 act brought into creation. It suggested that a set of standards be created for air planes that were outside of the military field. The Secretary of Commerce was granted oversight of the blooming industry by being able to license pilots and craft, decide on official air routes, investigate accidents, and create navigation technologies. However, at this time, planes were still almost purely used for mail or military uses.

Henry Ford decided to step into the airline industry in 1927 with the invention of the Ford Trimotor, aka the “Tin Goose”. The Tin Goose was a landmark in many regards, first and foremost among these being that it was the first craft designed to carry passengers rather than mail. In addition to its twelve passenger capacity with flight attendants (nurses to assist with flight sickness and serve food) and a roof high enough to stand up under, the Trimotor also had a fully metal construction of lightweight duralumin and three motors that allowed it to traverse distances at faster speeds. The popularity of these new passenger planes was then skyrocketed by another event in 1927. With the non-stop flight of Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic Ocean, the abilities of air planes were made undeniable. The speed superiority over rail and ocean liners made it clear that travel by air would be the way of the future and that the previous modes of transport would soon lose popularity in terms of both travel and mail delivery.

The Air Mail Act of 1934 acted as a final step in creating passenger airliners. It became apparent that there were unfair characteristics to the nature of the bids over mail routes that the Kelly act allowed for. The Air Mail Act addressed these unfair policies and made the bidding process for mail contracts more competitive to give smaller companies a chance where before they would struggle to get contracts from the much larger air lines. These changes in policy ended up forcing a number of air lines to re-specialize on the passenger end of air plane service and to move away from the air mail division of the technology. Looking back it can be seen that the modern passenger air liner industry owes its origins to the Kelly Act, the Commerce Act of 1926, and the Air Mail Act of 1934. These three acts set the standards for the purchasing of contracts in the air industry, the monitoring of the air lines by the government, and encouraged the eventual shift from mail delivery to passenger travel.

However, the increases in passenger travel would not become notable until after World War Two. By the early thirties, air travel was still new in the public eye compared to the tried and tested modes of train and boat travel. Though Charles Lindbergh had proven that a nonstop transatlantic crossing could be performed, it had been an extremely challenging task and weight was such a concern that he was the only person on the vessel. Significant advances need to be made to create airplanes that were large and fast enough to make the crossing with a profitable number of passengers. At this point, most trips taken by airplane were relatively short in distance. At the same time, safety was proving to be a concern. In order for the airlines to draw a large number of passengers they needed to create larger, faster, and safer vessels.

As a result of these needs for growth and the recent confidence inspired by events such as Lindbergh’s flight the airplane technologies saw significant advancement throughout the thirties. Many of these advancements included improvements to in-flight navigational ability. Better altimeters, compasses, speedometers and others instruments all allowed the pilots to determine their location and condition of the airplane more accurately. Radio allowed for constant communications with the ground and soon led to the construction of the first flight control tower at what became Newark airport. A network of beacons was set up across the nation with marker beacons at airports to maintain constant contact to provide visual aid in low visibility. Air cooled motors replaced the water cooled motors that had been previously so that larger and more powerful engines could be built to power larger airplanes. Additionally, the first flight simulator was created in 1928 which allowed for pilots to practice to some extent without risking an airplane in the process.

Most importantly, in 1933 the world saw the first planes that can be described as a modern airliner. With the unveiling of Boeing’s 247 and Douglas’s DC-1 and DC-2 the (10, 12, and 14 passenger capacities respectively) the way was paved for widespread air travel. Then came the DC-3. This was the first plane that showed that passenger airliners could be profitable and soon became the norm in the United States after debuting with American Airlines. It was able to hold as many as 21 passengers and cross the United States in only 16 hours yet still only costing ten percent more to operate than the DC-2. In addition to the advances in speed and capacity, the DC- 3 was among the first aircrafts to use foam soundproofing and rubber padding in the seats.

The inefficiencies and the often questionable finances of the airline industry proved to be in need of remedying once more. As a result, the Civil Aeronautics act of 1938 established the Civil Aeronautic s Authority, later renamed to the Civil Aeronautics Board. The CAB could act as a regulatory agency that would set pricing and monitor business practices. This proved to be vital in stabilizing the precarious situations that many airlines found themselves in. The presence of and overseeing entity to regulate the businesses helped to secure the future of the airline industry.

Into the Jet AgeEdit

As with World War One, World War Two proved to be motivation for further technological advancements. The two most notable technologies to arise, in part, from the wartime clime are the radar and the jet engine. Methods of radar use included the ability to detect aircrafts as far away as the mainland coast from England’s shore. Additionally, an oscilloscope was able to create a mapped image of the ground in the area surrounding the air craft vastly improving navigation. The jet engine was under development by the Germans and the British throughout the course of the war though it was still incomplete at the end of the war. The P-59, America’s first jet engine air plane was introduced at the end of the war.

Thanks to the Jet engine, remarkable speeds and distance could now be obtained. However, safety was still an issue. The constant oppressive climate of the cold war provided the incentive to constantly increase the capabilities of the air crafts that were in use. The arms race that the military was involved in directly contributed to the acceleration of the growth in the private sector of passenger aircrafts. Due to this rate of growth in the span of six years aircrafts grew from the Comet, a 36 passenger British plane that could fly at 500 miles per hour (and eventually would fall apart mid-flight due to fatigue in the metal of the fuselage) to the Boeing 707. Introduced in 1958, the 707 was a modified version of the KC-135, a plane used to refuel bomber planes in mid-flight. The 707 could hold 136 passengers and fly at up to 550 miles per hour, effectively dwarfing the competition in terms of capacity, safety, and speed. The age of passenger jets had officially begun.

With the high demand for air travel that was now beginning, there was a need for an overseeing safety regulation. With a mid-air collision in 1956 this need became all to obvious. To answer this need the federal government created the Federal Aviation Administration (Federal Aviation Agency at the time of its creation) through the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. The FAA acts as the body in charge of aviation safety nationwide from the airports to the control towers to the monitoring of airplanes in flight. The primary concern was to ensure that accidents such as the 1956 collision were prevented from happening again. Its control did not end there; the FAA also had control over the approval of new airplane designs and modifications as well as pilot training and training for any service that would affect the safety of the industry.

To add to the jumbo jets there was another set of airplanes that focused on speed above capacity. The supersonic Concorde jets that were debuted in the late 60s were a very niche market. While they offered unparalleled speed they were also very expensive. The industry had reached a balanced point where there was no longer a need to strive for faster and faster trips- normal passenger jets could already take a person anywhere in the world within 24 hours. The tradeoff for a few hours shaved off of the trip in exchange for a significant fee was only an appeal to the wealthy. Other concerns were pointed out too, such as the constant sonic booms that would make airplanes even louder than they already were. The United States airline companies never adopted the Concordes, and in the end the supersonic planes were shut down in 2003.

Air liners before the first jumbo jets were rather different from the modern day in many respects. The price of air plane tickets in the fifties was considerably higher than it is today, for some people it may have cost several weeks salary for even a short flight. In terms of passenger comfort the airplanes of the time strove to lure more customers into the use of the air lines. By comparison, the leg room provided in economy was similar to what business class has today, and it was not uncommon for planes to lounges with full couches. At the same time, the obvious lack of inflight entertainment at the time meant that most people either slept, smoked, or drank to pass the time. The safety of the planes was also somewhat questionable. Turbulence was more noticeable and deaths due to airplane accidents were five times more common than they are today.

With the creation of the jumbo jets such as the 707 and the 747 passenger airliners had cemented their place in the world of travel. Trains and Ocean liners, which had dominated the market for transportation of any type including shipping, mail, and people just 50 years before were now completely outclassed. From the fifties to the modern day airports have grown in size along with the airliner fleets. Airlines have consolidated into a small number of large companies that dominate the market. Through it all, annual passenger numbers have grown continuously to the point that nearly eight hundred million trips are made every year in the United States alone. In addition to all of this they are among the safest modes of travel with only 1.3 deaths for every 100000 hours of flying time.

Historical Ridership DataEdit

Data was compiled on the annual number of domestic flights in the US. The data came from two sources: 1954 to 1980 was gathered from while 1981 to 2014 was found at The data from both of these sites was put side by side and a regression curve was fit to the plot. The R squared value for this curve was 0.9874 and the maximum number of annual passengers predicted is approximately 825,000,000.

A number of things can be determined by analyzing the regression curve. Firstly, it can be seen that the united states airline industries entry into the growth phase of its cycle almost directly coincides with the development of the 747. This shows that the passenger jets and jet engines acted as the final push, the magic bullet, to accelerate the growth of the industry. Secondly, it can be seen that the airline industry has already entered its maturity phase and that the rate of growth has begun to taper off. This indicates that growth may soon stop unless another extreme change is made in the industry.

Actual Passengers vs Expected Passengers on United States Airliners by year


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