Significant airline anniversaries appear every year, but which airline is the oldest? We examine the claims.
Each year it seems that airlines celebrate anniversaries that reflect upon 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 honour of its 85th anniversary.
British Airways is celebrating its centenary in 2019 by announcing plans to paint selected aircraft with retro livery used by BOAC in 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.
The various claims all have different justifications, so we have compiled our own list, in alphabetical order.
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?
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.
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 October 7, 1933 to establish Air France as we know it today.
A US airmail stamp picturing similar aircraft that American Airlines flew at the time they operated their airmail service in the 20s and 30s.
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, Missouri to Chicago, Illinois. 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 planes commercially from New York City to Chicago on June 23, 1936. If you are interested in learning more, and are ever in Dallas, there is the wonderful CR Smith Museum which is a great visit (Tom Otley)
The Colombia air carrier was founded on December 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.
An Imperial Airways-operated De Havilland DH86. This plane was used on the first ever Penang to Hong Kong sector flight on March 14, 1936.
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 August 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. It merged with Imperial in 1940 to form BOAC. When BOAC merged with BEA (the second UK nationalised airline) in 1974, this was the formation of British Airways. You can read more at British Airway’s website here.
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 October 6, 1923. Only a few weeks later, CSA flies their first commercial flight from Prague to Bratislava on October 29, 1923. Their first chief pilot was Karel Brabenec and the ground speed of their first aircraft was 115 km/h. Seven years later, CSA takes off on their first international flight to Zagreb on July 1, 1930.
A replica of a Huff Daland 1920s crop duster that hangs in the Delta Flight Museum. Huff Daland Dusters became Delta Air Service in 1928. An original of the duster is in the Smithsonian.
Delta’s predecessor, Huff Daland Dusters, was founded in Macon, Georgia in 1924 as the first commercial agriculture flying company. Huff Daland began crop-dusting operations during this time with its 18 planes, the largest privately owned fleet in the world. On December 3, 1928 Huff Daland was bought by C.E. Woolman and was renamed to Delta Air Service, because of the Mississippi Delta region that the airline served. In 1929 the airline carried its first five passengers on a flight from Dallas, TX to Jackson, Mississippi.
Passengers board an early KLM flight.
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 October 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 25,000 kilos of mail and cargo in that first year.
An early flight operated by a predecessor of Deutsche Lufthansa AG, which would eventually become Lufthansa. This flight marked the first European newspaper/airmail flight travelling from Berlin to Weimar in 1919.
The early 1920s was a competitive time for starting airlines in Germany. Aircraft carried mostly mail bags and parcels and a few daring passengers in open aircrafts with no radio contact with the ground. During this time two private commercial German airlines emerged, “Deutscher Aero Llyod” and “Junkers Luftverkehr.“ The two airlines merged together into one subsidised airline on January 6, 1926, forming “Duetsche Luft Hansa AG,” the predecessor of Lufthansa.
This AVRO 504K pictured above was part of QANTAS’ fleet in the early 20th century.
Founded as “Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services,” QANTAS was originally created with the idea in mind to provide transportation and mail service between the remote outback settlements. The Australian airline company was founded on November 16, 1920 and flew 871 passengers with a fleet of two planes on joy rides and demonstration flights in that first year alone. QANTAS began scheduled airmail service between Charleville and Cloncurry the next year.
United’s predecessor Varney Airlines was founded in 1926 by Walter T. Varney. That same year, Varney Airlines conducts the the first air mail delivery from Pasco, Washington to Boise, Idaho on April 6, 1926. Varney Airlines merged with the air manufacturing company Boeing Air Transport (1927) and three other air manufacturers to become an airline conglomerate known as United Aircraft Transport Corporation in March 1931. The company dissolved amidst congressional pressure in 1934, and the independent operating company known as United Airlines was born. You can read more about the early history between Boeing and United airlines here.
So who is the winner?
It really depends on how technical you want to get. 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 August 1919. Or you could argue that KLM deserves the title, since they have been operating under the same name continually since October 1919 without mergers. 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.
Regardless of the true technical winner, it is clear that the early twentieth century was a crucial era for the airline industry and without the innovation of early pilots and entrepreneurs, the airline industry would not have grown into what it is today.