By Asif Siddiqi, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
American Airlines traces its origins back to several companies, one of
which - Robertson Aircraft Corporation - began flying regular mail flights
on April 15, 1926 using De Havilland DH-4 aircraft. Inspiration for the
consolidation that eventually led to American Airlines, however, goes back
to the Embry-Riddle Company, an airmail service company founded in 1925 in
Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1927, Embry-Riddle won the mail contract to deliver
mail from Cincinnati to Chicago, and on December 17 of the same year,
began operational flights using a fleet of 10 Waco biplanes.
Embry-Riddle needed more money to expand, and Fairchild Aircraft
Corporation showed interest in its modest operation. After some
negotiations, on March 3, 1929, Fairchild organized The Aviation
Corporation (AVCO), a company with the goal of financing not only
Embry-Riddle but also a host of other small aviation mail operators,
including Robertson Aircraft Corporation. AVCO had a board of 70 directors
from the highest levels of U.S. business. Such was its financial power
that within six months of incorporation, it had acquired nine airlines—including
Colonial Airways Corporation and Universal Corporation. Later, in January
1930, Texas-based Southern Air Transport also became part of AVCO.
The large number of acquisitions set the stage for a reorganization of
AVCO. Although AVCO owned many airlines and delivered mail between the
east and west coasts, the company itself was a sprawling corporate mess.
To streamline its organizational structure, AVCO formed American Airways
on January 25, 1930. The new company would now have operating subsidiaries
under its direct control. By this consolidation, American Airways became
one of the 'Big Four' domestic U.S. passenger and mail airlines—the
others being Eastern Air Transport,
Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), and United
A thumbs up from the
captain of this American 707 at LAX in January
Image courtesy of AirNikon.
Find more of his photos at Airliners.net
By 1931, American Airways had several mail contracts that theoretically
allowed a passenger to travel from the East Coast to the West flying only
on American's airplanes. The owners of AVCO also aggressively worked
toward capturing the important New York-Chicago route by acquiring
Transamerican Airlines Corporation. American Airways had also inherited
the key southern route for mail delivery after the famous 'Spoils
Conference' in 1930 when Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown had
distributed specific routes to particular airlines.
Major changes in the airline industry in 1934 affected the fortunes of
American Airways. Franklin D. Roosevelt, soon after assuming the nation's
presidency, canceled the air mail contracts in February 1934, thus
rendering null and void the provisions of the 1925 Kelly Air Mail Act that
stipulated how contracts for particular routes would be handed out to
specific airlines. Roosevelt's decision was partly motivated by
allegations of excessive public subsidy of airlines.
After a disastrous attempt to have the Army Air Corps fly the mail,
Roosevelt renewed the mail contract system with the stipulation that
airlines that had benefited from Brown's decisions in the past could not
participate. Roosevelt also stipulated though the Air Mail Act of 1934
that the old aviation holding companies such as AVCO had to break up. As a
result, AVCO sold off much of its share of American Airways. To reflect a
break from its past, American Airways renamed itself American Airlines on
April 11, 1934. The airline officially began service the following month.
At the same time, it appointed a new president, Cyrus R. Smith, an
ambitious executive who had come up through the ranks of Southern Air
At the time that Smith took command of American Airlines, the company
was flying the 18-passenger Curtiss Condor, a plane that Smith considered
inadequate to fulfill his vision of a transcontinental airline. In a move
that would prove to be of great importance to the history of U.S.
aviation, Smith convinced the aircraft manufacturer Donald Douglas to
build a new aircraft with the roominess of the Condor and the speed and
modernity of the DC-2. Although Douglas was reluctant at first, he
eventually agreed when Smith decided to order 20 of the new Douglas
Sleeper Transports (DSTs). The day-plane version of the DST was known as
American Airlines took delivery of the first DST on June 8, 1936 and
introduced the plane on the New York-Chicago route 17 days later. These
services, named the American Eagle and the American Arrow, set new
standards for nonstop passenger flights. On September 18, 1936, American
used a DC-3 aircraft to inaugurate its American Mercury service, a
coast-to-coast 16-to-17-hour (depending on the direction) trip. Compared
to the DC-2, the DC-3 was a vastly superior aircraft and its introduction
by American Airlines marked the beginning of a new era in passenger
aviation. Between 1933 and 1937, the company's passenger volume tripled,
and the numbers increased 11-fold in the following five years. By 1939,
American Airlines was flying the most passenger-miles of any domestic
American Airlines had a special role during World War II by serving the
military needs of the U.S. government. For example, it helped move U.S.
troops to Brazil after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It also flew
supply flights to places such as Iceland, Alaska, India, Morocco,
Australia, and across the North Atlantic in support of the war effort. In
the same period, the airline also lost some of its advantages in domestic
flights, as the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) handed out new contracts for
key routes to competing airlines. Airlines such as TWA and United began to
compete with American on its important southern coast-to-coast route from
New York to Los Angeles via Nashville, Dallas, and El Paso.
After the end of the war, competition for coast-to-coast flights
remained a key part of domestic commercial aviation. The 2,500-mile
(4,023-kilometer) trip was not only in high demand but also economically
beneficial for the airlines. Three airlines, American, United, and TWA,
fought fiercely over the rights to fly these routes. While the DC-3 was an
excellent airliner for its time, its limitations prompted the airlines to
look for improved alternatives that could reduce flight time. American
Airlines began using the Douglas DC-4 cross country on March 4, 1946, for
13-to-14-hour trips. American was also the first airline to offer
pressurized-cabin service when it introduced its DC-6 on the New
York-Chicago route and, on May 20, 1947, on transcontinental flights.
These coast-to-coast flights lasted about 11 hours.
American's main competitors for the transcontinental route were TWA and
United. Through the early 1950s, these airlines vied with each other,
buying new improved aircraft from either Lockheed
or Douglas. TWA, for example, in October 1953, introduced the first
regularly scheduled nonstop transcontinental service between Los Angeles
and New York. Only six weeks later, American Airlines introduced its own
nonstop service using the new DC-7 (which it had sponsored) in direct
competition with TWA. The flight took roughly eight hours to complete.
Of the 'Big Four' domestic airlines, American Airlines was the first to
begin domestic jet service using purchased rather than leased planes. On
January 25, 1959, American began flying Boeing
707 airplanes from New York to Los
Angeles. Through the 1960s, American used a mix of Boeing 720
and 727 aircraft. It also bought 30 of
the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC)
One-Eleven 401s, a big coupe for a British jet maker. Later in August
1971, American Airlines became the world's first airline to put the new
wide-body Douglas DC-10 into
operation. In terms of passenger-miles flown in 1969, American placed
third, behind United and TWA but ahead of Eastern.
N132AA - an American
DC-10-10 seen at LAX on February 13, 1999.
Image courtesy of AirNikon.
Find more of his photos at Airliners.net
In 1968, Cyrus R. Smith, the president and guiding hand of American for
nearly 35 years, retired. He had had a hugely successful career during
which he had helped to make American one of the most important domestic
airlines. Smith's legacy was not only in management; he had pioneered the
use of hot in-flight meals, flight attendants (called stewardesses at the
time), effective discount programs for frequent flyers, aggressive
advertising campaigns, improved passenger reservation systems, and better
air traffic management systems—all in the 1930s.
Despite the fall of many giants following the passage of the Deregulation
Act in 1978, American Airlines remained important in the commercial
aviation industry in the United States. It, in fact, benefited from the
collapse of Eastern Airlines, when it acquired all of Eastern's routes
into Latin America. If, in 1990, American was not a big player in the East
Coast market, by 1992, it had become a major contender following the fall
of Pan Am, Eastern, and TWA. At the start of the 21st century, American,
along with United and Delta, remains one of the three most powerful
passenger-carrying airlines in the United States.
American Airlines' most visible recent action was the wholesale
purchase of TWA in April 2001. The company plans to operate TWA
temporarily as a subsidiary until it completely integrates all of TWA's
employees and operations into American Airlines.
Note: This article was commissioned by and
first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It
appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author