airliner timeline
commercial aviation 1920 / 1930
flight in the 1930s
Transatlantic air services
the 'Clipper'
the jet airliner
history of air freight
early French civil aviation
early German civil aviation
early Italian civil aviation
early Japanese civil aviation
early Soviet civil aviation
World Airlines
the history of US airlines
classic airline posters
airliner profiles

the Beginning of Transatlantic Services

Boeing 377 Stratocruiser

There are perhaps no air routes more travelled and more important in the Western world than those connecting the United States and Europe. Since the advent of commercial air travel after World War I, airline entrepreneurs had been exploring the possibility of flying transatlantic routes. To conquer the Atlantic was to link Europe and the Americas, the two great industrial centres of the world. While the limitations of aviation technology of the 1920s made commercial transatlantic air travel prohibitive, the historic flight of Charles Lindbergh in 1927 excited the imagination of many who dared to dream of regular flights across the vast expanse of ocean.

The North Atlantic presented major challenges for aviators due to unpredictable weather and the huge distances involved coupled with the lack of intermediate stopping points. Initial commercial forays into transatlantic services, therefore, focused more on the South Atlantic, where a number of French, German, and Italian airlines offered seaplane service for mail between South America and West Africa in the 1930s. German airlines, such as Deutsche Luft Hansa, experimented with a number of mail routes over the North Atlantic in the early 1930s, both with seaplanes and with dirigibles, but these were not regularly scheduled services and never led to commercial operations. There were, however, hundreds of transatlantic crossings with passengers made by zeppelins during the late 1920s and 1930s, including probably the most famous zeppelin of all, the luxurious Graf Zeppelin.

Other airlines such as the British Imperial Airways and Pan American Airways began working toward experimental transatlantic flights only in 1936, partly because the British were unwilling to grant landing rights for American air carriers until then. Both airlines decided to use flying boats because concrete runways were rare at coastal airports on the Atlantic, and also because landplanes capable of flying such distances without refuelling simply did not exist at the time. Both airlines carried mail rather than passengers in the early years. An average flight from coast to coast, using the Short S.23 Empire flying boats, took nearly a day.

Coast-to-coast flights using the Short S.23 Empire flying boats took almost a day

Pan American, under the leadership of the charismatic Juan Trippe, was one of the pioneers of commercial transatlantic service. Trippe recognized early that one major hurdle to regular transatlantic travel would be political. He was instrumental in negotiating agreements with several countries for landing rights at intermediate points in the Atlantic such as Newfoundland, Greenland, the Azores, and Bermuda. Based on the results of early exploratory flights, Trippe concluded that the most efficient route across the Atlantic would be the northern route, via the north-eastern coast of Canada, past Greenland, via Iceland, and then into northern Europe.

On December 9, 1937, Pan American invited bids from eight U.S. airplane manufacturers to build a 100-seat long-range airliner. Boeing, which won the competition, offered its legendary B-314 flying boat. Probably the finest flying boat ever produced and the largest commercial plane to fly until the advent of the jumbo jets 30 years later, the double-decker B-314 had a range of 3,500 miles (5,633 kilometres) and could carry as many as 74 passengers. Each plane cost more than half a million dollars.

After a well-publicized dedication ceremony, attended by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, on March 26, 1939, the Pan American B-314 Yankee Clipper made its first trial flight across the mid-Atlantic, from Baltimore, Maryland, all the way to Foynes in Ireland. The airline began regular mail services with the B-314 in May 1939; scheduled flight time was about 29 hours. With increased confidence in its new plane, Pan American finally inaugurated the world's first transatlantic passenger service on June 28, 1939, between New York and Marseilles, France, and on July 8 between New York and Southampton. Passengers paid $375 for a one-way trip across the ocean. By the beginning of World War II, Pan American, with its considerable experience in Pacific and South American operations with the famous Clipper service, dominated the transatlantic routes. The airline offered regular flights with its seaplanes from La Guardia airport in New York City to Lisbon in Portugal, which was the most common entry point into Europe at the time.

Pan Am's Yankee Clipper made its first flight across the mid-Atlantic on March 26, 1939

Commercial services during World War II were intermittent at best. Pan American also conceded some of its monopoly to the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC), which had purchased three B-314s for its own transatlantic service, just before the beginning of the war. The major turning point in transatlantic air service occurred in June 1945 when the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board granted permission to three airlines to operate service across the North Atlantic. They were American Export Airlines, Pan American, and Transcontinental & Western Airlines (TWA). This agreement finally broke Pan American's monopoly over international air travel and contributed to the flourishing of air travel in the post-war era. (American Export would merge with American Airlines on November 10, 1945, to become American Overseas Airlines (AOA).

American Export became the world's first airline to offer regularly scheduled landplane (as opposed to seaplane) commercial flights across the North Atlantic. Using the reliable DC-4 aircraft, it began passenger services from New York to Hurn Airport near Bournemouth in England (with stops at Gander, Newfoundland, and Shannon, Ireland) in October 1945. Each one-way flight lasted about 14 hours. Pan American debuted its own flights a few days later also using the DC-4. Eventually, the company began using the new Lockheed Constellation and Super Constellation aircraft, both of which had pressurized cabins that allowed them to fly as high as 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). In August 1947, Pan American opened a new era by beginning regularly scheduled non-stop flights between New York and London using these aircraft.

Transatlantic air travel in the immediate post-war years remained a novelty, but it offered significant advantages over sea travel. A usual journey by sea across the Atlantic took about five days, while air travel cut that down to less about half a day. Events in the post-war era also led to a rise in commercial cooperation between Western European countries and the United States, which increased tourism and made air travel easier. European airlines were in too weak a position, however, to take advantage of the new demand for transatlantic passenger travel because of their post-war equipment and aircraft shortage. Here, American air carriers, such as Pan American, AOA, and the relative newcomer TWA were able to fill the new needs. TWA joined Pan American and AOA in offering regularly scheduled transatlantic services in February 1946 using the Constellation, and quickly became a stiff competitor to the two other U.S. air carriers.

The history of commercial transatlantic air travel underlines how both political factors (international permits and civil aviation acts) and technological frontiers (the advent of the Boeing B-314) were key factors in the expansion of commercial air travel.

While American air services dominated transatlantic routes at the end of World War II, eventually European carriers began to take advantage of the growing market. By the end of the 1940s, Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), the Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), Air France, the Belgian SABENA, and Swissair all were carrying passengers across the Atlantic as part of a new post-war air travel boom. Where ten years previously, the transatlantic route was a rarely travelled passenger route, by 1950, it had become the world's number one route in terms of traffic and produced high revenue and fierce competition among some ten major international airlines. The Atlantic had finally been conquered for the common passenger.