Airline Career Field

Airline Careers Background

Airline CareersThe first recorded flight of a human being took place in 1783 when French inventors Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier inflated a large balloon with hot air, reaching an altitude of 6,000 feet. Advancements in aeronautics, the science of flight, soon led to the development of successful glider designs. Two brothers, Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright, became convinced that the typical glider wing structure was fundamentally flawed. They built a wind tunnel to test the flow of air over a variety of new designs. At the same time, they developed specifications for an internal combustion engine powerful enough to lift its own weight and the weight of a plane. They consulted marine engineering texts and constructed a propeller for their plane. By the time the Wright brothers made their historic first flight on December 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they embodied the basic structural components—engineering, manufacturing, ground crew, and pilots—of today’s airline industry.

Technological advances followed rapidly. Spurred in part by the growing certainty of war in Europe, designers sought faster, more maneuverable, and more stable aircraft. Attempts to develop commercial air transport largely ended, however, with the outbreak of World War I. Efforts were now directed at developing the airplane’s military potential. By the end of the war, planes could reach speeds nearing 200 miles per hour and could climb as high as 30,000 feet, while operating for many hours in the air. By 1919, a U.S. Navy plane made the first transatlantic flight of nearly 3,400 miles. Nonetheless, commercial use of the airplane would remain limited for some years after the war. Airplanes were not yet large enough or reliable enough to carry passengers at a profit, and they were not yet able to fly in bad weather.

In 1919, companies in Germany, France, and England, with support from their governments and using converted surplus warplanes, began civil airline services. In the United States, civil airplanes were chiefly the props of stunt flyers and daredevils. However, the passage of the Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925, in which the transport of mail was turned over to private contractors, gave the airline industry the boost it needed. A series of technological advances in airplane and airplane engine design during the 1920s and 1930s gave a further boost to the airline industry.

Increasing numbers of people were flying on commercial airplanes. The Air Commerce Act, passed in 1926, established licensing requirements for pilots and airlines, while creating an airway network with lights and radio beacons. This provided not only for greater safety in the air, but also for greater consumer confidence in the young airline industry. Then, on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh completed the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris and set off a boom in aviation and air travel. Within six years, the United States boasted the busiest airport in the world, at Newark, New Jersey. Companies, such as Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed, began devoting themselves to the manufacture and design of aircraft.

In the 1930s, many of the small airlines from the decade before had merged to form what would become known as the Big Four airline companies: American, United, Trans World (TWA), and Eastern. By the end of the 1930s, the U.S. companies carried 30 million people per year. World War II interrupted the growth of the commercial airlines. All available resources and research were directed toward the war and to winning dominance in the air over the powerful German Luftwaffe. The development of the jet engine, a turbine engine more powerful than the internal combustion engine, occurred during this time. The jet engine had a dramatic impact on the commercial airline industry.

Following the war, the industry underwent a rapid expansion. Planes could now carry larger numbers of people and transport far heavier payloads, with shorter travel times and fewer refueling stops. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Agency, later called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), regulated the technical aspects of the airline industry, performing safety inspections of the aircraft, creating specifications for airport and runway design, and establishing a system of air traffic control to help maintain the safety of the increasingly crowded skies. The Civil Aeronautics Board regulated the economic aspects of the industry, dictating which routes each airline was allowed to fly and what fares they could charge their passengers.

In 1952, British European Airways was the first to add commercial jet service and became the first foreign company to make a successful entry in the U.S. market. U.S. airlines were far slower to adopt jet planes into their fleets. It was not until 1959 that Boeing introduced its 707. But by the middle of the next decade, the United States dominated the international airways. By the end of the decade, manufacturers were building jumbo jet airplanes, such as the Boeing 747 and McDonnell-Douglas’s DC-10, capable of carrying from 300 to nearly 500 people per flight. These planes reached speeds of up to 625 miles per hour. In 1976, the supersonic Concorde was introduced. It was designed to fly at 1,350 miles per hour, and flew until 2003, when its commercial flights ended.

Larger planes meant lower prices, and lower prices meant more passengers than ever before. Meanwhile, airplanes had long been put to other uses. Alongside the commercial airline industry, the general aviation industry included roughly 80 percent of all registered aircraft in the United States. Manufacturers such as Cessna and Piper created smaller, usually piston-engine planes, for such purposes as pilot training, aerial sports such as skydiving, and private pleasure flying. Later, the jet engine was adapted for general aviation use in executive and business transport services. Private mail and package delivery companies such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service began to build fleets of their own.

Until 1978, the airline industry was strictly regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board. Air travel was largely dominated by a handful of giant companies. In an effort to increase competition within the industry, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 removed these controls. The airline industry entered a chaotic period in which many airlines failed, while others merged and many new ones appeared. Ticket fares decreased for some larger, more frequently traveled destinations. But for smaller destinations, fares rose drastically. Nonetheless, the industry underwent an explosion in the number of passengers flying each year.

As the industry entered the 1990s, a more profitable hub-and-spoke system began to emerge in which airlines based their operations in one or more cities. However, an economic downturn, coupled with the enormous competition of the last decade, took its toll on the airlines. The sudden end of the Cold War meant an end to unlimited government defense spending, causing a crisis among aircraft manufacturers. In the industry itself, fewer and fewer jobs were being created, and many were being lost.

The end of the recession, however, brought renewed prosperity to the airlines and increases in the numbers of people traveling. Airlines focused more on services such as electronic ticketing, frequent flyer programs, and in-flight telephones and videoplayers to increase their attractiveness to customers. Another trend was the formation of partnerships between U.S. and foreign companies, allowing them to extend the routes they could offer to their customers. Many aircraft manufacturers began to enter other areas of manufacturing and technology to replace revenues lost to the shrinking defense budget.

The economy slipped into recession again in 2001, hitting the airline industry hard, primarily because of drastically lower numbers of business travelers. Then, the terrorist attacks of September 11 put the industry in real crisis. The attacks shut down air transport completely for four days and then new security measures and regulations were immediately instituted. Airlines were forced to reduce flight capacity and cut schedules. To persuade passengers to fly again, they had to offer cheaper fares. As a result, the industry reported losses of nearly $10 billion at the end of 2001. Close to 100,000 jobs were lost. In response, Congress passed the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act to help the airline industry deal with the financial ramifications of the terrorism. The bill provided direct cash grants, loan guarantees, compensation for increased insurance costs, and limits to liability for third-party damages resulting from terrorist acts. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that increasing business and leisure travel and an improved economy will help the airline industry gradually rebound over the next decade.