The story of commercial air travel, in a heavier-than-air, winged aircraft, began on January 1, 1914, when the world’s first scheduled passenger service took to the skies in a single-engine Benoist flying boat piloted by pioneering aviator Tony Jannus for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. That morning, as a crowd of 3,000 gathered at St. Pete’s municipal pier, a ticket for the inaugural round-trip flight to Tampa was auctioned off, and former mayor Abraham Pheil won the honor with a bid of $400. Prior to lifting off from the St. Petersburg waterfront, Pheil climbed aboard the open cockpit biplane and squeezed onto a single wooden seat beside Jannus. Flying no higher than fifty feet over the water, the flight across the bay to Tampa took 23 minutes, as opposed to the two hours it would take by steamship, or the nearly 12 hours by railroad. Henceforth, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line made two flights daily, six days a week, and charged a regular fare of five dollars per passenger. While the Airboat Line only operated for four months, it carried more than 1,200 passengers across the bay, and led the way for regularly scheduled trans-continental flights.

The Golden Age of Flight

In post-World War I, as the aviation industry grew, several commercial airlines began operations delivering U.S. Airmail, and then carrying passengers. In the 1920s and 1930s, the period between the two World Wars became known as the Golden Age of Flight. Many of the most notable early airlines were founded during this time period; Western Air Express and Ford Air Transport Service in 1925; Pan American Airways in 1927, which flew airmail from Key West to Havana, and Transcontinental & Western Airlines in 1930 (later TWA), when Western Air Express merged with Transcontinental Air Transport. 

Life aboard a 1920s airliner was quite different from what it is today. Flying was a novel, upscale experience reserved for the wealthiest members of society and business travelers. Airliners carried less than 20 passengers and flew at lower altitudes in unpressurized cabins, frequently landing to refuel. Air travel was noisy and cold, and passengers wore their coats and hats to keep warm. In order to accommodate their every need, uniformed air stewards assisted passengers with their baggage and helped them board the aircraft. Onboard amenities included meals that typically included fruit compotes, cold fried chicken, and elegantly composed sandwiches served on lightweight dishware or wicker baskets. Before the advent of instrument flight in 1929, airplanes could not fly safely at night and had to circumvent mountains. Turbulence, lengthy flight times, airsickness, and other flight-related discomforts often resulted in travel anxiety. In order to keep air travelers at ease, airlines hired nurses to attend to passengers. In 1930, Ellen Church, a nurse and licensed pilot, was hired by Boeing Air Transport (now United Airlines) as the first female stewardess. Despite these discomforts, service evolved quickly in the 1930s. According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the airline industry expanded from transporting 6,000 passengers in 1930 to over 450,000 by 1934, and 1.2 million by 1938.

The Douglas DC-3 would revolutionize commercial air travel when it had its first flight in 1935. Faster, larger, and more comfortable than its predecessors; the first DC-3, the Douglas Sleeper Transport, was the pinnacle of luxury, with plush seats in four main compartments designed to fold down from the cabin ceiling into sleeping berths. The aircraft could accommodate up to twenty-eight passengers for shorter day flights and fourteen overnight. As a reliable, economical, and profitable airliner, commercial aviation industry giants such as American, United, and TWA ordered the DC-3 for their fleets in 1936 and many other airlines followed suit in the next two years.

Steward serving drinks to a passenger in the lounge of a Boeing 314 c.1940 (nyheritage.org/Cradle of Aviation Museum)

The 1930s heralded in many of the earliest commercial trans-Atlantic flights. Pan American Airways was a forerunner, carrying passengers across the Atlantic in their fleet of flying boats, or ‘Clipper’ aircraft. Transatlantic service began in May of 1939, first flying from Port Washington, Long Island, as the new Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia was being built. That same year, Boeing 314s were considered the ultimate ‘Clippers’, carrying up to seventy-four passengers across the Atlantic and entering trans-Pacific service, linking all the continents in the Northern Hemisphere. The B-314 was a long-range flying boat that could land anywhere at sea, providing the destination had a sheltered harbor in which it could taxi to. But transport in the 314 was still reserved for the very wealthy, and a return ticket between Manhasset Bay in Port Washington to Southampton, England cost over $650; the equivalent of over $12,000 today.

Striving to provide the most pleasant flight experience, Pan American Airways set the gold standard of passenger service. The Boeing 314 had a large upper flight deck and a lower passenger cabin divided into five seating compartments. There was a galley kitchen, a baggage compartment, men, and women’s changing and restrooms, as well as a main lounge that converted into a dining room. White-gloved, tuxedo-clad stewards catered to their passenger’s needs. Meals were lavish experiences with gourmet foods and drink served on fine china, and silverware set on white linen tablecloths. Sleeping quarters on the 314 were roomier than earlier Clippers and its aft De Lux Compartment was called the ‘Bridal Suite’. 

“I have heard many planes referred to as flying hotels, but none is more worthy of that description than the Pan American Airways Clipper.”

A Wright Aeronautical Co. observer on a B-314 survey flight

First flown in 1938, the Boeing 307 Stratoliner was the first four-engine airliner with a pressurized cabin, allowing it to cruise at an altitude of 20,000 feet, well above the clouds and higher than rough weather. Pan American entered the B-307 into scheduled domestic service on July 4, 1940, with routes to Latin America, and from New York to Los Angeles. The nearly 12-foot-wide cabin carried thirty-three passengers in comfort and provided space for comfortable berths for overnight travelers, as well as observation areas for those who bought the more expensive seats. The airplane’s circular fuselage provided maximum space for five crew members and the Stratoliner was the first land-based airliner to have a flight engineer as a member of the crew.

With the onset of the Second World War, commercial air travel came to a virtual halt and was limited only to those serving the war effort. But commercial aviation, along with the aviation industry as a whole, grew substantially during wartime with the development and production of large-scale aircraft and the utilization of ex-military bombers and transports that were easily converted into commercial airliners. In the post-war years, Lockheed C-69 Constellations, used as transports by the U.S. Army Air Forces, were purchased from the government by TWA and converted into civilian airliners for their fleet. After TWA’s first transatlantic demonstration flight in the Constellation, or ‘Connie’ in December of 1945, TWA launched its transatlantic service in the Connie with a flight from New York to Paris on February 6, 1946. 

The Golden Age of Air Travel

After 1945, American aircraft technology set the standard for international air operations, and toward the end of the 1940s, major carriers achieved a strong foothold on international travel.

As the decade of the 1940s ended, the era of commercial flight between the 1950s and 1960s was born and became known as the ‘Golden Age of Air Travel’ and the ‘Jet Age’. By 1950, the trans-Atlantic route became the most traveled in the world, and its growing trade produced high profits and intense competition between major international airlines. In the United States, commercial jet service began with the introduction of the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. Larger and more economical than its previous airliners, Pan American began international flights on the B-707 in October of 1958. National Airlines soon began domestic jet service with the 707, and American Airlines opened its own domestic jet service in January of 1959, with a flight from New York to Los Angeles. At the end of the decade, for the first time in history, more people in the United States traveled by air than by railroad.

Passengers board a Boeing 314 at the LaGuardia Marine Terminal ramp c.1941
Passengers board a Boeing 314 at the LaGuardia Marine Terminal ramp c.1941 (nyheritage.org/Cradle of Aviation Museum)

Despite its immense growth, air travel was still expensive and reserved for the elite – celebrities, and movie stars, who were called the ‘Jet Set,’ a name coined in the early 1950s by journalist Igor Cassini. Since commercial flight was still a unique, awe-inspiring event, passengers often documented their experience on airline postcards and posed for group photos prior to boarding. They dressed in their finest clothes, with women in dresses and heels, and men in tailored suits. First Class was spacious, and ‘economy’ seating provided up to six inches more legroom than today. With an increased market for air travel, airlines competed to outdo each other by offering their passengers extravagant amenities; in-flight entertainment, free-flowing cocktails, and fancy multi-course meals that included soup, salad, carved meats, vegetables, dessert, and even lobster. In a 1952 TWA (Trans World Airlines) ad captioned, ‘’Have dinner tonight with the stars!”, an elegantly dressed couple is depicted sitting before a lavishly set table while being served by a burgundy-coated steward and a perfectly coiffed stewardess in uniform and cap. 

As the Golden Age of Air Travel led on, well into the 1960s, those who were fortunate enough to enjoy travel on the newest commercial jetliners featured some of the biggest celebrities of the day, including the Beatles, who arrived at JFK International in New York from London aboard a Pan American Boeing 707, to thousands of screaming fans, and some 200 journalists in February of 1964 ….fifty years after the first scheduled flight in the Benoist flying boat before a crowd of 3,000. And while the principles of flight remain the same, commercial air travel as we know it today may not be as lavish an experience as it once was during its Golden Days, but it certainly has come a very long way.

Advertising art for TWA Boeing 707 airliner.
Advertising art for TWA Boeing 707 airliner. (nyheritage.org/Cradle of Aviation Museum)

Experience the Golden Days of Air Travel

Today, the Pan Am Museum Foundation Exhibit at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, Long Island pays tribute to Pan American World Airways as a pioneer in commercial aviation through the preservation of Pan Am artifacts, memorabilia, and images that commemorate the company’s history and the people behind this legendary airline. 

Also today, at the TWA Hotel at JFK International Airport, visitors are welcome to view the New York Historical Society’s curated exhibitions celebrating TWA’s history. Located within and throughout the former iconic TWA terminal, designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962, the exhibits allow visitors to experience the Jet Age through authentic artifacts, interactive displays, uniforms, memorabilia, and personal narratives. Both are a must see!

A Pan Am stewardess prepares meals in the galley of a Boeing 707 c1961
A Pan Am stewardess prepares meals in the galley of a Boeing 707 c1961 (nyheritage.org/Cradle of Aviation Museum)
Julia Lauria-Blum earned a degree in the Visual Arts at SUNY New Paltz. An early interest in women aviation pioneers led her to research the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of WW II. In 2001 she curated the permanent WASP exhibit at the American Airpower Museum (AAM) in Farmingdale, NY, and later curated 'Women Who Brought the War Home, Women War Correspondents, WWII’ at the AAM. Julia is the former curatorial assistant at the Cradle of Aviation Museum and is currently an editorial contributor for Metropolitan Airport News.

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