Airlines — how they began

Looking back to the roots — the start of the world’s airlines

by Suren Ratwatte

Europe in the 1920s was still reeling from the devastation of the Great War. With their treasuries emptied, a whole generation of youth dead or wounded, societies in turmoil and trust in leaders at an all time low, the governments of the day turned to aviation to try and resurrect their fortunes.

Imperial Airways route map

Britain in particular was intent in continuing to secure her colonies. There was a resurgence in trying to extract maximum profit and ensure that the wealth created there flowed back to London to pay back the massive cost of the war, even as nationalist feelings were stirred by the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Turkish Empire. The other European nations who had colonies, also seized on an airline as a vital new means of communication and control with far flung outposts.

Entrepreneurs, mainly ex-military pilots, had formed many small companies using war surplus aircraft. Beginning in the early 1920s, governments began encouraging, or forcing, them to merge and form larger airlines. France took the lead with a number of smaller companies coming together and forming Air Union in 1923, which in turn merged with four other airlines to become Air France in 1933. Air France today operates over 200 aircraft and is a partner in the Air France-KLM conglomerate, one of Europe’s ‘Big Three’ carriers. The Dutch government, which had remained neutral during the carnage of the Great War, founded KLM in December 1919 as well and it is the world’s oldest airline to bear its original name.

A KLM Douglas DC-2 of the type that flew to Batavia. Courtesy KLM

The Belgian government (which at the time had extensive colonies in Africa) encouraged the formation of an airline named SNETA in 1919 that merged with SABENA in 1923 and was the flag carrier of Belgium until its demise in 2001. Most of these airlines were formed, in part, to ensure rapid communication with the colonies of the European powers, in Africa and Asia. KLM’s route from Amsterdam to Batavia (now Jakarta) was the world’s longest scheduled flight until 1939.

Germany was late to the party due the destruction caused by the Great War. Lufthansa was officially formed in 1926 and ceased operation in 1945 with the defeat of Germany in the Second World War. It was restarted in 1953 and is today Europe’s second largest airline.

His Majesty’s Government of Great Britain, in the boldest such step, encouraged the major of four smaller airlines to form Imperial Airways Ltd in 1924 guaranteeing a GBP 1 million subsidy over ten years. This was to set the trend for state subsidies to airlines, an unfortunate habit that persists to this day in some parts of the world and has seen a resurgence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Handley Page HP45 in Sharjah. Courtesy The National.ae

Imperial Airways, based in Croydon to the south of London, went on to be a trailblazer in many respects. Pioneering long routes to far-flung corners of the British Empire, using aircraft, flying boats and sometimes trains to link the two. The continuous push for improvements led to many innovations, including the extensive use of flying boats, especially those produced by the Short design house. “Beyond the Blue Horizon” by Alexander Frater, is one of the many books that detail the achievements of this era.

By the 1930s, Imperial Airways routes to Europe and the length of Africa to Cape Town were in place. Another, eastbound route, went first to Karachi (then part of India), then onto Calcutta. This was further extended to Rangoon, Singapore and, eventually, to Brisbane, Australia in conjunction with a small Australian company, the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services or QANTAS.

Started in a small, dusty and still isolated town in Queensland, far inland from the more populated coast, QANTAS bears the distinction of being the world’s second oldest continuously operating airline to bear its original name. Formed in November 1920 to service farming communities in the interior of Australia, today QANTAS (and its subsidiaries) has gone on to being one of the world’s more profitable airlines, with a fleet of over 290 aircraft and a dominant position in its home market.

Stamp issued on Avianca’s 50th anniversary.

The oldest airline to bear its original name and to operate continuously (KLM ceased flying during the Second World War) is Avianca of Colombia, which was founded in December 1919. With over 100 aircraft Avianca is the second largest airline in Latin America, though it was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the USA as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in May 2020.

Imperial Airways went onto become the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and continued to be a pioneer in many aspects of the industry. BOAC merged with British European Airways in 1974 to form British Airways. Privatized in 1987, it still exists as part of the International Airline Group, Europe’s largest airline, and the One World alliance.

This is part of a series on the propliners of the 1950s and the slow transition to the jet age. It all began with the DC-3 of course, and my columns move through the other Douglas propliners, the Boeing 377, Lockheed’s Electras and the elegant Constellation. The Brabazon Committee which sparked such a wave of innovation in the UK with the Vickers Viscount, the Bristol Britannia and the ill-fated de Havilland Comet. Many other significant aircraft, such as Avro Canada’s innovative but aborted C-102 passenger jet and the Sud-Aviation Caravelle, which led us into the start of the Jet Age have columns too.

A few quirky segues I couldn’t resist: the ‘Double Sunrise’ flights between my two homelands Ceylon and Australia; the wonderful Carvairs and that very British habit of taking your car on holiday. I also had to write a paean to my beloved A380 and all my pilot friends in the Gulf as COVID ended that little dream.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the series as much as I have relished writing them. My special thanks to my old friend, mentor, editor and repository of knowledge Roger Thiedeman, for all the encouragement and support throughout this project.

I love airplanes. As an airline captain I flew many including the A380 and Boeing 777. But wish I’d had the opportunity to fly some of these old propliners.