Commercial Flight in the 1930s

Ford Trimotor

At the beginning of the 1930s, the Ford Trimotor, nicknamed the “Tin Goose” because of its corrugated metal skin, was one of the planes used for commercial passenger air travel, although not the only passenger airplane. Boeing had introduced its Model 80 in 1928, which also was designed as a passenger transport.

The Ford's most common variant, the 5AT, introduced in 1928, accommodated 13 passengers in its earliest model and was modified to seat up to 17. With no air conditioning and little heating, the plane was hot in summer and cold in winter, and with no circulation system, its environment was made even more unpleasant by the smell of hot oil and metal, leather seats, and disinfectant used to clean up after airsick passengers. Opening a window was the only way to escape the smell. The Boeing 80 was somewhat more comfortable, equipped with forced-air ventilation and hot and cold running water. However, no plane at the time could fly high enough to escape the turbulence encountered at lower altitudes, and passengers were equally suspect to airsickness. The Ford Trimotor could reach about 6,000 feet (1,829 kilometre), but its climb to that altitude was slow, and the plane would surge upward, level off, bump around, and drop repeatedly before it reached its cruising altitude. The Boeing Model 80 had a higher 14,000-foot (4,267-meter) ceiling but was still subject to turbulence.

In these early days of passenger flight, airlines realized that they needed to keep passengers happy and encourage them to return once they were brave enough to fly. In the late 1920s, some airlines employed male crew members, known as aerial couriers, cabin boys, flight companions, airplane attendants, or stewards, on their flights. These men, who were usually teenagers or men of small stature, loaded luggage, reassured nervous passengers, and helped people get around the plane. Stout Airlines, which later became part of the United Air Lines group, is credited with hiring America's first male flight attendants in 1926 for its Ford Trimotors on the Detroit to Grand Rapids route. Some airlines used the co-pilot to tend to passengers, serving beverages, reissuing tickets when a flight was cancelled or delayed, and reassuring passengers during air turbulence. By the late 1920s, Pan American Airways, which flew over water, required extensive first aid and seamanship training for its steward trainees.

In 1930, Boeing Air Transport introduced aviation's first stewardesses (one per airplane), who were then required to be registered nurses

But on May 15, 1930, everything changed when Boeing Air Transport introduced the first female flight attendants. These women, called air stewardesses, attempted to make passengers more comfortable, offering them water, a sandwich, and sometimes chewing gum to help relieve ear discomfort. They also carried baggage, took passenger tickets, checked for gasoline leaks, and tidied up the cabin after a flight. Ellen Church, a registered nurse, is credited with convincing Steve Stimpson, manager of Boeing's San Francisco office, that women could work in a role previously limited to men. She persuaded the company that nurses were best able to tend to ailing passengers. Thus, nurses aboard the Boeing Model 80 became the first female flight attendants, for the salary of $125 per month. American Airlines began using stewardesses in 1933, and other airlines soon followed, although Pan American resisted the trend until 1944.

Rules were stringent for these women, who had to work in the confined space of early passenger aircraft. They could be no taller than five feet, four inches nor weigh more than 118 pounds. Required age was between 20 and 26 years, and they had to be single, a rule that lasted for most airlines into the 1960s.

Passengers made plane reservations by telephone—a new experience for former rail travellers, who usually bought tickets in person. The air passenger would phone the airline office, which in the early 1930s was often at the airport since airports near larger cities were staffed around the clock. Tickets consisted of a long series of paper coupons that detailed every leg of the trip. Toward the middle of the decade, more airline offices opened in downtown areas. Airlines also introduced the practice of issuing prepaid “scrip” to their regular passengers to pay for their tickets. Each paper slip in a booklet of scrip was worth a particular sum of money. When the passenger bought a ticket, the clerk would tear out one of the paper slips until the entire booklet was gone. Usually these early “frequent flyers” got a discount on their fares. Airlines, led by American Airlines, also began using carbon paper to speed up the ticket-writing process.

In 1936, the airline industry created the Air Transport Association with its associated Air Travel plan and Air Travel Card, first offered by American Airlines. After a $425 deposit, the card allowed travellers to “buy now, pay later” at a 15 percent discount. It was the start of the credit card industry. By the end of the decade, all the major domestic airlines offered similar cards that could be used on 17 different airlines. The association also created a standard airline ticket that, with only minor changes, is still issued as the “paper” air ticket.

Air travel early in the decade was limited mostly to the upper class and to those who had a good reason to fly, such as manufacturers' representatives and those involved in banking. Flying was more expensive than travelling by train and “discretionary” flying was not yet practiced. According to aviation historian Roger Bilstein, a market survey of the 2,500 air fares in 1930 revealed that “85 percent of the passengers came from major businesses and high-income residential areas.” Charles Solberg states that, in 1932, the main reason people flew was speed. Although only 25 people died in an air accident that year, it was perceived as dangerous; a $5,000 insurance policy for a plane trip cost $2 while for a trip by train, the cost was 25 cents. From 1932, the most famous airline passenger of the 1930s was very likely First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who crisscrossed the country by air.

In 1938, United Airlines operated a sky lounge on some of its DC-3s. The cabin held 14 passengers and the comfortable seats swivelled toward or away from the windows

With the introduction of the Douglas DC-2 in 1934 and the DC-3 in 1936, air travel became much more comfortable and somewhat more commonplace. The DC-2 could fly coast-to-coast faster than any passenger plane before, and the DC-3 had both day and sleeper models, allowing passengers to travel cross-country in comfort. By 1939, at least 75 percent of all air travellers were flying on DC-3s. While the earlier trimotors had been plagued by engines that transmitted noise and vibration back to the passengers, Douglas planes added soundproofing to its cabins, ventilation ducts, and structure. Upholstered seats mounted on rubber and padded arm rests further reduced noise and vibration. The planes could also fly higher, around 20,000 feet, (6,100 meters), reducing, although not eliminating, turbulence, and the spar structure made the cabin roomier and easier to navigate than the contemporary Boeing 247, which had an internal spar that passengers had to step over.

Almost all the world's airlines flew the DC-3 beginning in the later 1930s

The introduction of these transports of the mid and late 1930s can be credited with increasing the number of air passengers from 474,000 in 1932 to 1,102,000 in 1937 and to 1,176,858 passengers in 1938 (U.S. Department of Commerce statistics). Other statistics state that the number of passenger miles travelled in the United States increased 600 percent from 1936 to 1941, a growth that was very largely due to the DC-3. But even as late as 1939, flying travellers made up just 7.6 percent of the long-distance train market. It would take several years more before the number of passengers travelling by air surpassed the train.