Last month, I had the opportunity to have lunch at the St. Petersburg, Florida, airport. Little did I know, this was the birthplace of scheduled aviation service. The first flight was between St. Petersburg and Tampa on a seaplane. Today’s planes seat more than the two passengers carried on this first commercial flight. However, the business of airline travel is still immersed in the fascinating financial maneuvers that made the the original flights possible.
St. Petersburg, Florida, is not generally considered a city that can boast of an aviation ‘first.’ But on January 1, 1914, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line was born there — the world’s first scheduled airline using winged aircraft. A plaque on the entrance to St. Petersburg International Airport proclaims: ‘The Birthplace of Scheduled Air Transportation.’
Traveling in that first passenger airplane made of wood, fabric and wire was a far cry from flying in today’s comfortable, air-conditioned airliner. From all accounts, however, those first airline flights were not so bad, provided you did not mind sitting out in the breeze with water spraying in your face. Passengers sat on a wooden seat in the hull of a two-place seaplane that did not have a windshield and rarely flew more than five feet above the water. That is the way it was on that momentous day in sunny Florida only a decade after Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic first flights at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Amazingly, cargo was flown almost immediately on these flights, beginning the massive cargo business that we see today spanning the world.
Local merchants took advantage of the airline’s sudden renown to advertise that their wares were being transported by air. A Tampa florist filled orders to St. Petersburg for as much as $50 worth of cut flowers a day. The Hefner Grocery Co. in St. Petersburg ran an ad touting Swift premium smoked hams and bacon that had been delivered by ‘Airboat Express.’ The ad said, ‘Although they came high, the price is low.’
And competition started quickly as well.
The early era of commercial flights, while technologically primitive, was a heyday for competition. The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line gave rise almost immediately to imitators, including an airline flying between the Los Angeles area and Catalina Island, off the Pacific coast, and a company that flew between New York and Atlantic City, N.J., in 1919, using war-surplus flying boats. Soon, another airline linked Florida and the Caribbean, according to the late aviation historian R.E.G. Davies. Today, four airlines control more than 80 percent of flights in the U.S.
The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line offered two round trips a day, costing $5 one-way ($116.53 in today’s dollars) for a one-way trip. Operations lasted three months.
A website has been set up by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) celebrating the 100th anniversary of commercial flight. This 23-minute journey marked the birth of the global airline industry.
• Explore a review of the first 100 years of commercial flight
• Share stories and first flight memories
• Join the #Flying100 twitter celebration and conversation
• Share your perspective with IATA on how to make the next 100 years even more remarkable
Finally, enjoy this wonderful slide show about the history of commercial aviation that was taken from the Wall Street Journal.
The pioneers who flew from St. Petersburg to Tampa could not have foreseen the incredible changes that their venture would initiate.
“Over the last century, commercial aviation has transformed the world in ways unimaginable in 1914. The first flight provided a shortcut across Tampa Bay. Today the aviation industry reunites loved ones, connects cultures, expands minds, opens markets, and fosters development. Aviation provides people around the globe with the freedom to make connections that can change their lives and the world,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
“Aviation is a force for good. And the potential of commercial flight to keep changing the world for the better is almost unlimited. Aviation has always been a team effort. Growing and sustainably spreading the benefits of connectivity will require the industry, governments, regulators and local communities keep true to the ‘all-in-it-together’ ethos that was the bedrock of that pioneering first flight. And we should be guided by the long-term interests of all whose lives are positively transformed by commercial aviation every day. A hundred years is something worth celebrating. And we look forward to creating an equally remarkable legacy for commercial aviation’s second century,” said Tyler.