Who Flew First?
Significant airline anniversaries appear every year, but which airline is the oldest? We examine the claims
June 1, 2019
Each year it seems airlines celebrate anniversaries that reflect their lengthy history in the commercial flight business. Air France, for example, is rolling out its latest edition of amenity kits for business and premium economy class in honor of its 85th anniversary.British Airways is celebrating its centenary in 2019 by announcing plans to paint selected aircraft with retro British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) livery from the 1960s and 1970s.
There’s a reason so many airlines are coming to notable birthdays – commercial aviation started between 1910 to 1920, and many of today’s airlines either started as a result of military action, or as crop dusters or mail carriers in the United States.
But when determining a real starting point, there are factors to bear in mind. Primarily, do you consider longest continual service as one airline, or do you factor in a history of mergers? Does a name change indicate a break in the history and disqualify what could be its founding date?
The various claims all have different justifications, so we have compiled our own list, in alphabetical order.
Aeroflot’s predecessor was created by the Labour and Defence Council of Russia on March 17, 1923 and was known a DOBOROLET (The Russian Society for Voluntary Air Fleet). DOBOROLET was a commercial organization created to develop civil aviation for the needs of the Russian national economy. The airline’s first international route was launched on May 1, 1922 between Moscow and Konigsberg, which was part of Germany at the time. The name Aeroflot was adopted in 1932 after the Central Administration of the Civil Air Fleet was founded. aeroflot.ru
Air France traces its roots back to 1918, when Aeropostale (then known as Lignes Latecoere “The Line”) was founded as an aerial postal service. Aeropostale was a leader in early aviation history with its scheduled crossings of the Atlantic starting in 1930. Aeropostale and four other private French airlines eventually merged on Oct. 7, 1933 to establish Air France as we know it today. airfranceklm.com
The first American Airlines commercial flight took off on April 15, 1926. American aviator Charles Lindbergh piloted the flight which carried mail from St. Louis to Chicago. American Airlines continued to carry mail for eight more years before switching to passengers in 1934. AA was the first airline to fly the newly created DC-3 commercially from New York City to Chicago on June 23, 1936. If you are interested in learning more, and are ever in Dallas, pay a visit to CR Smith Museum. aa.com
The Colombia air carrier was founded on Dec. 5, 1919 under the name Sociedad Colombo Alemena de Transporte Aereo (SCADTA). The airline set off on its first flight in 1920 with two pilots and one passenger between Baranquilla and Puerto Berrio on a Junker aircraft. By 1921, the airline had established routes from the cities of Baranquilla, Girardot and Neiva. SCADTA later merged with Servicio Aéreo Colombiano (SACO) to become AVIANCA. avianca.com
British Airways claims a 100-year history as of 2019. The all-important date is the inaugural flight from London to Paris of Air Transport and Travel on Aug. 25, 1919. The flight had one passenger on board, a newspaper reporter. Air Transport and Travel eventually merged into Imperial Airways in 1924. British Airways Ltd. was formed in 1936 through the merger of United Airways (not the US one), Hillman Airways, and Spartan Airlines. This entity merged with Imperial in 1940 to form BOAC. When BOAC merged with BEA (the second UK nationalized airline) in 1974, the combined enterprise became British Airways. britishairways.com
Like many of the airlines on this list, Czech Airlines was formed as a state airline company and was founded as Czechoslovak State Airlines on Oct. 6, 1923. Only a few weeks later on Oct. 29, CSA flew their first commercial flight from Prague to Bratislava. Their first chief pilot was Karel Brabenec and the ground speed of their first aircraft was 75 mph. Seven years later, CSA took off on their first international flight to Zagreb on July 1, 1930. csa.cz
Delta’s predecessor, Huff Daland Dusters, was founded in Macon, GA, in 1924 as the first commercial agriculture flying company. Huff Daland began crop-dusting operations with 18 planes, at the time the largest privately owned fleet in the world. On Dec. 3, 1928 Huff Daland was bought by C.E. Woolman and was renamed to Delta Air Service, deriving its name from the Mississippi Delta region the airline served. In 1929 the airline carried its first five passengers on a flight from Dallas, TX, to Jackson, MS. delta.com
KLM is the self-proclaimed oldest airline in the world. It is also the world’s oldest continually operating airline under the same name. Founded on Oct. 7, 1919, KLM made its first scheduled flight between London and Amsterdam in 1920 with an airco DH 16. KLM introduced regular routes around Europe by 1921 including destinations in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, Paris and London. KLM carried a total of 345 passengers and nearly 30 tons of mail and cargo in that first year. airfranceklm.com
The early 1920s was a competitive time for airline startups in Germany. Aircraft carried mostly mail bags and parcels and a few daring passengers in open aircraft that had no radio contact with the ground. During this time two private commercial German airlines emerged, Deutsche Aero Llyod and Junkers Luftverkehr. The two airlines combined into one subsidized airline on Jan. 6, 1926, forming Deutsche Luft Hansa AG, the predecessor of today’s Lufthansa. chronik.lufthansagroup.com
Founded as Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, QANTAS was originally created with the idea to provide transportation and mail service between Australia’s remote outback settlements. The airline was founded on Nov. 16, 1920 with a fleet of two planes, and in that first year alone flew 871 passengers on joy rides and demonstration flights. QANTAS began scheduled airmail service between Charleville and Cloncurry the next year. qantas.com
United’s predecessor Varney Airlines was founded in 1926 by Walter T. Varney. That same year, Varney Airlines conducted the the first air mail delivery from Pasco, WA, to Boise, ID, on April 6, 1926. Varney Airlines merged with four aircraft manufacturing companies, including Boeing Air Transport in 1927, to become an airline conglomerate known as United Aircraft Transport Corporation in March 1931. The company faced pressure from Congress and antitrust investigators and dissolved in 1934. From this the independent operating company known as United Airlines was born. hub.united.com
So who is the winner?
It really depends on how technical you want to get. You could argue that KLM deserves the title, since they have been operating under the same name continually since Oct. 1919 without mergers. Or you could argue British Airways is the oldest airline as they can trace their roots back to AT&T’s inaugural London to Paris flight in Aug. 1919. What is interesting is that by British Airways’ own measurements, Air France has the biggest claim to the title as their first predecessor was formed in 1918.
In other parts of the world, Qantas and Avianca were the first pioneers into commercial flight and helped transport mail, passengers and other goods as early as 1920. Latecomers to the party were the US carriers which got their starts in the mid- to late-1920s.
Regardless of the technical winner, it is clear that the early twentieth century was a crucial era for the airline industry. Without the innovation of early pilots and entrepreneurs, the airline industry would not have grown into what it is today.