Despite tragedies, air travel 100 years on remains safe and reliable

Despite tragedies, air travel 100 years on remains safe and reliable
© PHILIP DAVALI/AFP/Getty Images

A young woman recently shared with me her excitement around the prospect of her first airline flight. The flight was the focus of our discussion, not her destination of the Bahamas.

The conversation brought a reflection on my first flight to Oklahoma City decades ago. The family flight to visit to relatives from our home in Southern California spared us a long hot drive across the Southwest. That first flight and approach through clouds remains a clear memory. The family vacation, not so much.

Believe it or not, first flights on commercial aircraft enjoy more than a 100-year history.

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The first venture reportedly launched on Jan. 1, 1914, when the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line introduced service across Tampa Bay. It had to have been an adventure for those first passengers. The Benoist XIV carried just one passenger at a time for the fare of $400. Unfortunately, the service lasted only three months.

History made 100 years ago during 1919 was more lasting. In London, a British company called Air Transport and Travel Ltd. placed several aircraft into service designed by De Havilland. Space was provided for two paying passengers in the fuselage with the pilot sitting in an open cockpit above. The first flight for a passenger was experienced on Aug. 25, 1919, when an enterprising journalist flew from London to Paris on the inaugural flight.

The Netherlands entered the picture in 1919 as well, offering commercial service in a Fokker aircraft between Amsterdam and London. The commercial venture was known as KLM, which is why today’s KLM proudly claims the title of the world’s longest continuously operated airline.

Other than the many photographs showing early passengers treated to sumptuous meals and pampered by well-groomed flight attendants, there is little reason to believe that these early experiences provided pure joy. The unpressurized aircraft flew at low altitudes. Navigation equipage was minimal, and the weather was treacherous. Indeed, one story shared from the early years involved a pilot in very bad visibility flying low and following the black smoke from a train engine to find better weather at his destination. Often, weather created far greater delays than those experienced today.

Yes, much was different decades ago. But, much remains the same.

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Then and now, people sought greater mobility. Aircraft reduced time and distance allowing people to reach destinations with greater ease. Soon, the world began to shrink. Oceans, bays and rivers were crossed. Nations found they could attract people for business and tourism. Wars would advance the use and quality of aircraft, and peace would see the utilization of the improved flying machines by commercial airlines.

Early on, a commitment to safe air travel became mantra for a young growing industry. Aircraft were closely monitored, and issues were addressed not just for one aircraft but for the fleet. Better navigation tools in the cockpit and on the ground improved utilization of aircraft, reliability of service and, most importantly, passenger safety. And, pilot training was viewed as an essential part of the safe-flying experience, creating an entire flight training industry.

Even with the commitment of so many, there were tragedies. However, each one was studied and used to improve systems and procedures. The aviation community remains today one of the single best examples of shared knowledge when it comes to the safe operation of complex, technologically advanced machines. Today, the aviation industry continues to experience an extraordinary safety record even with over 50,000 flight operations each day in the United States operating out of over 5,000 public use airports.

We’ve been on a remarkable path these past 100 years. Today, a young woman is more likely to experience a safe, on-time flight from Maryland to the Bahamas, or anywhere else, than at any time in the history of commercial flight. Hundreds of people and billions of dollars of flight management systems will make correct decisions from the pushback of the aircraft to its touchdown at the destination. And, every decision point is monitored, recorded and studied to see how flight operations can be improved. Additionally, hundreds of other people at the departing and arriving airports work to make sure the experience on the ground is positive for passengers.

Still, a favorite pastime remains the registering of complaints to friends, relatives or no one about air travel. Yet, when you look at the experience and reflect on how far we’ve come, you do wonder just how justifiable the complaints are today. When looking at the idyllic scenes from the past inside a small commercial aircraft as people are smiling at their large meals in a comfortable setting, you might wonder where that all went.

Of course, for those willing to pay the price for private aircraft, this still exists. But, for most passengers, the desire for the lowest possible fares and most convenient schedules changed the way commercial air travel is offered. Like all services, commercial flight service is very much demand-focused. When most passengers stopped looking for the fine wine and meal and just wanted to get there fast for the lowest price, the service changed, at least for most travelers.

Next time you board a commercial aircraft, reflect on the past hundred years. There is a good case to be made that most travelers have what they sought: safe travel, on schedule and at the lowest possible cost. If the experience isn’t 100 percent pleasing or doesn’t match that decades-old photograph of the perfect flight experience, maybe we as the passengers are a bit to blame. And, just maybe that photograph never really quite captured the totality of the early days of commercial aviation.

Either way, support an airline. Fly somewhere this summer.

Craig Fuller served as president and CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) from 2009 until September 2013. He previously served President Ronald Reagan as assistant to the president and head of the Office of Cabinet Affairs, and then became chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. He co-chaired President-elect Bush’s transition office and chaired the Republican National Convention in 1992. He now runs his own firm, The Fuller Company. Follow him on Twitter @CraigFullerTFC.