Few things fascinate me as much as our global airline system. The industry does an astounding job despite incredible challenges – perhaps greater than those faced by any other industry: terrorism, fuel prices, massive capital requirements, security and health concerns, the inability of most carriers to make consistent profits, and the resultant wrath of Warren Buffett.
While others may decry the industry – last weekend I watched 60 minutes’ Andy Rooney complain about how he hates to travel because of the awful airlines – my own experience has been outstanding. I fly an average of 100 flight segments a year, and just in the last two weeks flew 56 hours on one (very) long trip.
It is unbelievable to me that so many huge aircraft – a Boeing 747-400 can weigh over 800,000 pounds at take-off – circle the globe day and night, usually on schedule and almost 100% without accident. Yes, we may suffer at the hands of security crews and baggage handlers, and getting in and out of airports may not be the most pleasant experience. But the global airline industry successfully moves people over 6 billion passenger miles per day (a passenger mile is one passenger moved one mile). In some recent years, there have been zero deaths on the major US carriers, and overall global accident rates are incredibly low.
To me this industry and its history are extremely interesting because of the following factors, which all come together:
1) Airlines reflect technology, as we first learned to fly then evolved stronger propeller planes and then bigger and better jets. Our ability to predict weather, improve engine efficiency and reliability, better communicate from ground to earth, and other scientific advances are demonstrated every day by the industry.
2) Airlines reflect the norms and style of society – from “stewardess” uniforms (Southwest Airlines started out with hot pants) to the graphics used on the airplanes themselves, from beautiful wall posters to interior design.
3) Airlines are inherently geographical. By studying historic route maps and timetables, you can literally see the rise of Asia and Latin America. You can see my city of Austin go from being a “nothing” place where only one or two airlines stopped to being a major technology and creative hub. You can see the rise of Las Vegas and Orlando as centers of global tourism.
4) Airlines reflect the diversity of the globe. During Hitler’s time, Lufthansa loyally carried the swastika on the tails of their aircraft. Air France has always had a French spirit, KLM uniquely Dutch (although those two are now one company, they still operate the two historic brands).
5) The history of the airlines is one of the great unsung sagas of world enterprise. There are few great books on airline history – I think I have them all – and even fewer oriented toward the general interest reader. Consider such stories as these:
The Netherlands had founded one of the first airlines, KLM (“Royal Dutch Airlines”), in 1919 under the management of thirty-year-old Albert Plesman. The Dutch wanted to get to their remote colony, the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia) and its capital Batavia (now Jakarta). But, unlike France and Britain, the Netherlands did not have a series of colonies in which they could land en route. Therefore, KLM had to negotiate landing rights in British and other locations.
However, Plesman turned this lemon into lemonade, linking a series of stops to create the shortest and best route from Western Europe to Asia. On October 1, 1931, KLM opened regular passenger service from Amsterdam to Batavia, covering 9,000 miles in just ten days, with 81 hours of flying time. At the time, this was the world’s longest scheduled airline route. Sometimes the three passengers could be bumped by the higher-priority mail. Even after the Brits opened their competing service to the Far East, many British businessmen preferred KLM because of its great reliability.
Robert Six took over a fledgling airline called Varney Air Transport in the late 1930s. Its main run was from Pueblo to El Paso. Six renamed the airline “Continental” and took out a mortgage on his house to buy three giant new six-passenger Lockheed airliners. This company had a turbulent history until the arrival of CEO Gordon Bethune, who pulled off one of the few lasting and successful turnovers in the history of US industry. (Read his excellent book From Worst to First.) Today Continental is seen by many, including me, as the best of the old-line US carriers, before the rise of “upstarts” led by Southwest.
The most valuable and profitable airline in most years is Singapore Airlines, one of the greatest companies based in that booming city-state. On my recent adventure, I spent over 48 hours on their planes, and continue to be amazed at how good even economy class travel can be when in the hands of the right company. I once rode one of their planes for 18 hours and 45 minutes non-stop!
While Continental continues to fly proudly, many of the great names which created the industry are long gone – TWA, Pan Am, Eastern, Braniff, … All had unique and remarkable histories.
As you know, I could go on and on, but I won’t. In the future I hope to recommend many more books about the airline industry and its rich history. There is no better starting point than Classic American Airlines by Geza Szurovy (original hardcover, MBI Publishing, 2000, subsequently issued as a paperback). This is a beautifully illustrated book which tells the stories – a chapter each – on 11 of the most significant airlines in US history, including both the living and the dead. Through text and pictures you will see how the stories of brave entrepreneurs, bold aircraft designers, society and nation came together over the last hundred years.
I still get excited every time I see a giant airliner take off, and I get excited every time I re-open this great book.