Industry Celebrates Dawn of Commercial Aviation's Second Century

 - January 6, 2014, 1:25 PM
A Hoffman X-4 “Mullet Skiff” airboat takes off from the North Yacht Basin in St. Petersburg, Florida, en route to Tampa, on January 1, re-creating the first scheduled airline flight that occurred exactly 100 years earlier. (Photo: Brian Blanco/AP Images for IATA)

Commercial aviation has entered its second century, New Year’s Day having marked the 100th anniversary of the first flight with a fare-paying passenger. To celebrate, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has established 2014 as a year to reflect on the “contribution of aviation to modern life.” St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line flew the 23-minute first service across Florida’s Tampa Bay, using a Benoist Model XIV airboat with St. Petersburg mayor Abram Pheil in the only passenger seat. To mark the centennial, a Hoffman X-4 Mullet Skiff airboat retraced the route on January 1.

Although expanded with a second, two-passenger machine, the first service proved short-lived when daily flights ceased after three months. Nevertheless, it marked the birth of an industry that now flies more than 8 million people a day. IATA expects 3.1 billion passengers–equivalent to 44 percent of the global population–to fly this year. Meanwhile, airlines and freight haulers carry approximately 50 million metric tons of air cargo worth $6.4 trillion each year. IATA predicts the global airline industry will register a profit of $743 billion, support 57 million jobs and generate $2.2 trillion in economic activity on more than 50 million miles of air routes connecting some 40,000 cities.

IATA’s centennial website has established an historical and economic reference hub depicting the personal, economic and other values provided by commercial aviation. IATA co-sponsors Flight2014, the First Airline Centennial celebrations in Florida.

The IATA site offers a timeline of air-transport milestones, from Dutch carrier KLM’s first service in 1919, to the first biofuel commercial flight in 2011. However, it is not without anomalies: few people perhaps recognize the arrival of the Beatles at New York’s Kennedy airport (1964) as a key event, while omissions include the first supersonic commercial service (Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-144, 1975) and service entry of the world’s largest jetliner (Airbus A380, 2007); the first turbine-powered commercial flight was a British European Airways Vickers Viscount (1950).

Perhaps ironically though, the industry has often mirrored that first commercial service, which had to be subsidized. According to Flight2014, airboat manufacturer Thomas Benoist was anxious to demonstrate “aerial transportation at a price anyone can afford, even if [it] means a revenue loss.” He was the first of many to prove that you can never sell enough seats at below cost to make a profit.