The act of flying people and things around for money turns 100 years old on Jan.1, 2014.
On Jan. 1, 1914, four men combined their efforts to operate history's first scheduled commercial airline flight. According to a communiquÃ© from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the world's main airline trade group, Percival Fansler, an electrical engineer and speedboat enthusiast, organized the "St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line" to fly across Florida's Tampa Bay. An airboat owned by Thomas Benoist, an aviator and aircraft manufacturer, conducted the first flight, which was piloted by Tony Jannus. Abram Pheil, then mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., paid $400 at auction for the 23-minute excursion.
None of those pioneers could have envisioned the events of the century to come. Domestic air travel caught on in the 1940s and 1950s, though it would be available mostly to those affluent enough to afford what was then a luxurious form of transportation. The post-World War II era opened up international markets to the likes of Pan American World Airways, Northwest (Orient) Airlines, and the Flying Tiger Line, which evolved from Claire Chennault's warfighting outfit into a peacetime global air cargo force.
The commercial use of jet propulsion in 1958 spawned the "Jet Age" and permanently transformed air travel. Two decades later, the industry was permanently transformed again when Congress deregulated the economic activities of U.S. airlines. The law made air travel accessible to the masses. But it also forced airlines to operate in a free market bereft of the U.S. government's tariff protections. Carriers whose high labor and equipment costs could easily be passed on in a regulated environment suddenly were competing with low-cost rivals that performed as effectively as they did. Many legacy carriers filed for bankruptcy; some, like Braniff Airways, did so multiple times. Today, only four major airlines operate in the U.S. market, the world's largest.
Negative events or trends that hurt most industries seemed to inflict exponentially more damage on the airline industry. During the recession in the early 1990s, U.S. airlines lost as much money in two years as they made in aggregate since 1903. The tools of the industry's trade became weapons of mass destruction on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on the United States caused a global industry meltdown and ushered in a third permanent transformation, this time centered on aviation security. The "Great Recession" at decade's end also took a toll on the industry. In the air cargo sector, December 2008 volumes fell by 22.3 percent over December 2007 levels, an unprecedented decline. Year-over-year volumes dropped by more than 20 percent in each of the subsequent four months. They improved slightly in May and June of 2009, declining by "only" 17.4 percent and 16.5 percent, respectively.
Despite all the accumulated misery, air transport remains a compelling part of people's personal, business, and shipping lives. On average, more than 8 million people fly each day, according to IATA. World airlines flew 3.1 billion passengers this year, surpassing the 3 billion mark for the first time, according to the group. About 50 million tons of cargo flies each year. The value of that cargo is about $6.4 trillion, equal to 35 percent of the value of all global goods, IATA said.
An event had been scheduled for Jan. 1 to re-enact the first flight across Tampa Bay with a replica of the original airboat. But in what could be considered a touch of irony, the plane could not be ready to get airborne in time for New Year's Day. A back-up airboat will perform the flight instead.