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Airlines - American


American - Ft. Worth, TX


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American Airlines -- Fly American!
“Fly American!” – an early-1930s film by American Airways promoting the comfort and convenience of traveling by air. (4:47, sound)


American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum
American Airlines Flight Service History


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American Airlines, like most of the major U.S. carriers in the 20th Century, can trace its origins to the Air Mail Act of 1925. This legislation permitted the government to hire private air carriers to deliver the mail. At this time government subsidies for air mail delivery were crucial to the airlines' existence because passenger travel could not cover their operating costs. In 1934, a scandal erupted over how ex-Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown granted routes to the biggest carriers. The new Roosevelt administration canceled all the contracts for those airlines which had benefited under the previous administration's arrangement. In addition, none of those participating airlines could submit new bids. However, the new Postmaster General, James Farley, knew he could not shut out the major players - or there would be no one to deliver the mail. He allowed them to change their names and to bid as new companies. So American Airways became "American Airlines." The airline would quickly become a leader in commercial flight.

American's new president was a shrewd, hardworking Texan named C.R. Smith. Rather than relying on mail subsidies, Smith felt that his airlines' future was in passenger travel. He worked relentlessly to make this vision a reality. First, he ordered a large-scale upgrade of American's aircraft, putting into service the Curtiss Condor and the new, state-of-the-art DC-2. Smith then pushed Douglas to modify the DC-2 into what would become the 21-passenger DC-3, one of the most successful aircraft ever built. The DC-3 was the first truly economical plane for the airline because it made a profit from carrying passengers, not the mail.

Afraid to Fly

EnlargeIn the mid-1930s, American Airlines ran ads such as this one to directly address passengers’ fear of flying.

Smith also launched an aggressive campaign entitled, "Afraid to Fly," to combat the fears of the public that flying was dangerous. The airline ran a series of ads listing the many advantages of flying and its own excellent safety record. The new campaign, plus the addition of stewardesses in 1933, worked. Smith's persistence paid off. Finally, the airline turned its first profit in 1938, and by the end of the 1930's, American had become the top domestic airline in total passenger miles flown - a record it would hold for the next 20 years.

The increase in passenger travel meant an increase in air traffic. To keep the skies safer, American pioneered one of the first air traffic control systems, Air Traffic Control, Inc. It began simply as a group of men from the participating airlines at an office in Newark. The controller coordinated the planes' approaches and provided them with weather information by radioing their respective airlines, but he had no direct communication with the planes. Soon the system was used in Chicago and Cleveland - controlled by each city's airport. However, it became increasingly apparent that more control would be needed as air traffic grew, and in 1938 the Civil Aeronautics Authority was formed to create a national system of airline regulation.

With the onset of WWII, the nation's commercial fleet was pressed into military service. American's pilots flew in the war to many far-flung destinations such as China or India. After the war ended the airline acquired these new international routes, and then used their experienced pilots to fly them. The post-war era also saw domestic service improvements. In 1953, American began regularly offering its passengers non-stop cross-country service in their new fleet of DC-7s. Six years later, American entered the jet age with domestic flights on their new 707s. American also took the lead in developing the first domestic wide body jet. While Boeing was developing the 747 to satisfy Pan Am's need for a long-range jumbo jet, American and other airlines sought a new aircraft for shorter-distance routes. Both Douglas and Lockheed built planes to fill this need - the DC-10 and L-1011 - inspired largely by the vision of American Airlines' engineers.

Unprecedented growth in passenger traffic during the 1950s and 1960s necessitated several innovations. The American Airlines Stewardess College, the world's first school devoted exclusively to flight attendant training, was founded in 1957. In the early 1960s, American partnered with IBM to develop the Semi-Automated Business Research Environment (SABRE) system which allowed airline employees to instantly determine if a seat was available on any upcoming flight. The recession of the 1970s hit the airline industry particularly hard. Again, American used new innovations to attract passengers. They offered the first low-cost "Super Saver" fares and then in the 1980's, they created the AAdvantage Program, one of the first frequent flyer plans. Other airlines had no choice but to follow American's lead.

On January 10, 2001, American announced its plans to acquire the financially troubled TWA, the nation's eighth largest U. S. carrier. The merger would allow American to compete more effectively with the proposed merger between United and U. S. Air. On April 9, 2001, government regulators approved American's acquisition of TWA, currently making American the largest U. S. commercial airline.

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