The Origins of Commercial Air Transport in Western Europe and the United States (1919-1939)

Guy Vanthemsche
In: Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire. Tome 78 fasc. 3-4, 2000. Histoire medievale, moderne et contemporaine
- Middeleeuwse, moderne en hedendaagse geschiedenis. pp. 853-863.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Vanthemsche Guy. Introduction. In: Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire. Tome 78 fasc. 3-4, 2000. Histoire medievale,
moderne et contemporaine - Middeleeuwse, moderne en hedendaagse geschiedenis. pp. 853-863.
doi : 10.3406/rbph.2000.4468
National Paths to the Sky.
The Origins of Commercial Air Transport
in Western Europe and the United States


Guy Vanthemsche
Vrije Universiteit Brussel - Editorial Board RBPH-BTFG
The Purpose of These Essays l
Juxtaposing individual country studies or establishing a mere catalogue of
facts does not produce comparative history. Grasping the dynamics of a
transnational phenomenon implies a thematic approach of its components,
preferably with a first-hand knowledge of a wide range of primary sources,
often written in different languages, a difficult task indeed! All too often, an
array of disparate national monographs is packaged with a seducing general
title, resulting in little more than a surrogate study. Closer scrutiny, however,
shows that such publications do not really enhance our knowledge of the sub
jects' basic mechanisms, irrespective of the interest of the individual contribut
ionsA.t first glance, the present collection of essays seems to fall precisely
into this category of scholarship. The reader should therefore be warned at
once that the articles printed below, as well as this introduction, do not have
comparative ambitions as such. Their purpose lies elsewhere.
An overall comparative history of commercial air transport still remains to
be written, even if there is no lack of fine historical studies on this booming
transport business 2. Yet only a few scholarly studies really transcend national
borders. Almost four decades ago, R.E.G. Davies wrote his indispensable His
tory of the world's airlines 3. This impressive work meticulously charts the
essential developments of the airline companies all over the world, as well as
their operations and equipment. It certainly offers a lot of basic information
1 . 1 would like to thank my colleague Prof. W. Chew for the linguistic corrections and Dr. Marc
Dierikx for his useful critical comments.
2. Dominic A. PlSANO & C.S. LEWIS, eds., Air and Space History: an Annotated Bibliography,
New York, Garland, 1988, 571 p. (Garland Reference Library to the Humanities, nr. 834).
Concerning commercial air transport in particular: Peter J. Lyth, "The history of commercial
air transport: a progress report", in Journal of Transport History, 14, 1993, nr. 2, p. 166-180.
3. R.E.G. Davies, A History of the World's Airlines, London, Oxford University Press, 1964, 591
for cross-border comparisons. In a recent and brilliant synthesis, the late
Emmanuel Chadeau 4 wrote some inspiring pages on the birth and the growth
of commercial aviation in the leading Western countries 5. However, the broad
scope of this work (surveying all aspects of aviation) still leaves much space
for a thorough comparative approach. Another recent but unpublished work,
by Andreas Kieselbach, focuses on the early years of commercial air transport
in Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States, but doesn't make use
of non-German primary sources 6. Moreover, its analysis is flawed by the tra
ditional rhetoric of former GDR scholarship. As far as I know, only one modest
publication was derived from this research 7.
If the many popularized aviation histories are put aside, the bulk of histori
cawlor k on commercial air transport history indeed consists of nationally or
iented studies 8. This is all the more surprising, since the international connect
ionis a crucial (though not exclusive) aspect of aviation, certainly so in Eu
rope, where borders are numerous and often very close to each other. Nevert
heless, this particularity can be explained by the way in which this transport
system came into existence. Even if there were some strong common patterns
(to which we will return in a few moments), the birth and the early evolution
of commercial air transport were determined by specific national characterist
icNsot .on ly military, but also commercial flight immediately became a matt
er of national importance. This new phenomenon was soon embedded into an
organisational structure intimately linked with the Nation-State. So there un
doubtedly existed several national paths to the sky. It therefore makes sense to
outline the specificities of each country's aeronautical evolution, over and
above the general pattern. By bringing together six country monographs on
the early years of commercial air transport, this issue of Revue Belge de
4. Emmanuel Chadeau originally accepted to write a contribution for this volume. His untimely
death (1956-2000) unfortunately prevented him from doing so. I take this opportunity to sa
lute the memory of this fine and productive historian and to thank Sacha Markovic, who
kindly accepted to write a paper in his place, on very short notice.
5. Emmanuel CHADEAU, Le rêve et la puissance. L'avion et son siècle, Paris, Fayard, 1996, 437
6. Andreas KIESELBACH, Staatliche Regulierung und Monopolisierung im Luftverkehr
Deutschlands und andere kapitalistischer Hauptstaten [...] (1918-1929), Dresden, unpubl
ished Ph.D. of the Hochschule für Verkehrswesen "Friedrich List", 1988, 332 p. . Another
unpublished Ph.D. should be mentioned: Susan Elaine COLVIN, A History of International
Commercial Aviation, 1903-1939, University of Arkansas, 1993, 235 p. (see Dissertation Ab
stracts International, 54, January 1994, nr. 7, DA 9334154). This work compares the US and
Great Britain.
7. Andreas Kieselbach, "Etat et entreprises privées durant la phase de développement du trafic
aérien en Allemagne, en France, en Grande Bretagne et aux Etats-Unis, 1918-1929", in Erik
Aerts & Herman VAN DER Wee, eds., Recent Doctoral Research in Economic Histoij,
Leuven, Leuven University Press, 1990, p. 145-151 (Proceedings of the Tenth International
Economic History Congress, Leuven, August 1990, D-Sessions).
8. Except, naturally, the studies treating the diplomatic aspects of aviation (such as, for example,
those written by the Dutch aviation historian Marc Dierikx, who also contributes to this vol
Philologie et d'Histoire - Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Filologie en Geschiedenis
modestly hopes to fill a small gap. No other publication exists with this par
ticular focus 9, for up to this moment, recent scholarly and primary sourcebased
research on the origins of the aeronautical business in different count
ries is scattered over many separate publications, some of them not easily
Of course, all the essays printed here have their own emphasis. Some of
them cover the whole time-span 1919-1939, while others concentrate on a
particular aspect or period. Marc Dierikx (Institute of Netherlands History,
The Hague) tells us the Dutch story and quite harmoniously covers all the
different aspects of KLM's interwar performances. The British experience is
analysed by Peter Lyth (Business History Unit, London School of Economic
s)H.e also takes the full twenty years into consideration, while concentrat
inespgecia lly on the long-distance activity of the aptly-named Imperial Air
ways. Hans-Liudger Dienel and Martin Schiefelbusch (Zentrum Technik und
Gesellschaft, Technische Universität Berlin) synthesize the evolution in Ger
many. After a short overview of aeronautical developments before the foundat
ionof the Deutsche Luft Hansa, they sketch the main aspects of this famous
company's activities up to the Second World War. Ron Davies (National Air
and Space Museum, Washington) narrates the embryonic aeronautical devel
opments in the United States before the famous Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925.
Sacha Markovic (Service Historique de l'Armée de l'Air, Vincennes) focuses
on a particular, but crucial aspect of French aviation before the creation of Air
France in 1933: the role of public authorities in the aeronautical business. Fi
nally, my own essay, dealing with Belgium, concentrates mainly on the foun
dation of the flag-carrier Sabena, and summarizes in a few pages this compan
y'sev olution till 1939.
In spite of their different emphases, these articles have many points in com
mon. In varying degrees, they all consider such items as the origins of the
aeronautical enterprises, their performance, the role of public authorities
(capital provision and subsidies), the companies' networks and fleets and their
relationship with aeroplane constructors. This enables us to comment briefly
on some striking aspects, though without any pretensions to completeness or
originality. We will concentrate on the significance of air transport enterprises,
leaving aside such important aspects as technological evolution, ground infra
structure, etc.
9. A somewhat comparable, but more extended recent publication focuses on the post- World
War II evolution of commercial air transport: Hans-Liudger Dienel & Peter J. LYTH, eds.,
Flying the Flag. European Commercial Air Transport Since 1945, London-New York, 1998.
Three of its contributors have also written a paper for the present publication.
Common Picture, Different Features
A few common factors emerge from a quick examination of the first two dec
ades of commercial air transport. Commercial use of the aeroplane penetrated
most countries with remarkable simultaneity. In the months immediately after
the end of the First World War, several enterprises were founded all over Eu
rope (and, of course, in the US) to transport people and goods by air on a
commercial basis. Private initiative took the lead almost everywhere - though
this meant different things in the different countries, as we shall see. The link
with the great conflict that had just ended is most obvious: the wide-scale
military use of the aeroplane had proven the formidable capacities of this new
technology, while massive investments in material and skills provided a ready
base for civilian use once peace was restored. But the relationship between
commercial air transport and the war should not be interpreted in an all too
simplistic way, as we shall see in a moment. The war had another important
effect: it contributed to the creation of a juridical context which was to exer
cise a profound influence on air transport. Given the extensive military use of
this new technology, aviation was seen as a potential threat to national secur
ity. So the Paris Convention of 1919 stipulated that every nation had full
sovereignty over its air space. Giving and getting landing rights became a
matter of negotiations between governments. Consequently, national authorit
iewser e closely associated with the development of commercial air transport
enterprises. The latter were entangled in many extra-economic factors, such as
national prestige, diplomatic rivalry, etc. . This factor also played an important
role in the creation and operation of the unified national aviation companies,
the "flag carriers", which we will examine soon.
Twenty years later, on the eve of the Second World War, the original picture
had changed quite drastically. Commercial aviation had indeed kept many
promises. It was no longer a bold dream. It now had turned into an important
part of economic, social and political life. Extensive air routes had been estab
lished in and between most countries, even between continents. The technical
feasibility of air transport was no longer questioned. Security and reliability
had increased enormously, thanks to important organisational and, especially,
technological advances. But other aspects of commercial air transport did not
correspond to its initiators' original hopes. Instead of being run by private,
competitive enterprises, the air business was in the hands of a few huge comp
anies, where (at least in Europe) public authorities played an important, even
decisive role. For running an airline was no profitable activity. Rudimentary
technology, high exploitation costs, high fares and modest demand all com
bined to turn aviation companies into structurally loss-producing enterprises.
Only towards the end of the interwar period did this paralysing interaction
change somewhat, and did commercial air transport, in some rather except
ional cases, move towards financial self-sufficiency. This process was much
slower than had been expected by the intrepid dreamers of 1919-1920 who
wanted to make money by flying. During the whole period under considéraINTRODUCTION
tion here, State support was indispensable to keep commercial planes in the
air. This public aid could take many forms, but some kind of subsidy or (in
Europe) even outright capital participation existed in every aeronautically ac
tive country. Moreover, in the Old World, air transport enterprises engaged in
anti-competitive practices such as the pooling of revenues on certain routes
and agreeing on fares (through the IATA, International Air Traffic Association,
founded as early as 1919). In early commercial air transport, the fundamental
principles of free enterprise and competition were not meticulously applied!
Once this general picture is examined more closely, one nevertheless ob
serves many divergent features from country to country. These features com
bined to shape each nation's aeronautical particularities, and so influenced
many other aspects of life in society, such as mobility patterns, international
relations, market opportunities for industry, etc. . To some extent, these interwar
features can still be felt in the diverging performances of commercial air
lines today. All this could and should be worked out systematically, but this
would transcend the scope of the present volume. We will, therefore, limit
ourselves to a few remarks illustrating these diverging features during the
1920s and 1930s.
1. The role of the First World War was certainly important in the birth of
commercial air transport, but it would be wrong to interpret this impact in a
too linear fashion. In 1918, two of the victorious nations, Great Britain and
France, were the greatest air powers of the world, with a formidable aeronaut
icahlea d start over all other countries. But was this an unmixed blessing for
the development of their commercial air transport? Military aeroplanes were
not particularly suited for civilian transport. In his contribution to this collec
tion,S acha Markovic shows the important role played by the military in the
creation of French commercial air transport. However, very early on, the close
link between military and civil aeronautics was criticized by contemporary
French observers: "Malheureusement, l'état d'esprit qui devait présider à ces
débuts [= de l'aviation commerciale] n'était pas des plus heureux, car
l'aviation commerciale n'avait pu rompre avec ses origines et restait 'une
aviation militaire camouflée'. [...] Les conséquences de cette empreinte
militaire devaient être dangereuses tant pour la technique, que pour
l'organisation de l'aviation commerciale" 10. On the other hand, the main de
feated nation, Germany, had developed the biggest commercial airline in Eu
rope, less than fifteen years after the end of the war (and even before the Nazi
take-over). Hans-Liudger Dienel and Martin Schiefelbusch, for their part,
stress the fact that the stipulations of the Versailles Peace Treaty restricting the
development of the German air force had a stimulating effect on the develop
menotf that country's commercial air transport. Due to its neutral status, The
Netherlands had profited much less than other countries from the military
stimulus to aeronautics. Nonetheless, in but a few years time, this small nation
10. Francis THOMAS, La crise de l'aéronautique française et l'oeuvre du Ministère de l'Air,
Paris, puf, 1930, p. 10-11.
had created a remarkable airline company, the KLM, whose performance comp
aratively transcended that country's size, as Marc Dierikx demonstrates n. A
late-comer in the First World War, the United States, built up its huge aeronaut
icaclap acity during the 1920s without close links to the previous air war
effort, even if the air mail service used material and men supplied by the War
Department. Obviously, ww I did not have the same impact on the develop
menotf commercial air transport everywhere.
2. As soon as the war was over, daring entrepreneurs looked to the sky for
new profit opportunities. Some of them had even made up such plans before
the end of the conflict. However, these private initiatives were far from uni
form. In his contribution, R.E.G. Davies lists the scattered, individual and
mostly small-scale enterprises that made up early US aviation, next to the mass
ive public organisation created by the Post Office air mail. The legislative
intervention of 1925 was necessary to produce a more stable entrepreneurial
climate. In France and Great Britain several of the very first airline companies
were linked to the aeronautical constructors who had benefited from the war
effort. In Great Britain Handley Page Transport was linked to the constructor
of the same name, and Aircraft Transport & Travel was created by Aircraft
Manufacturing Company, where Geoffrey de Havilland acted as a designer. In
France, the Lignes Farman (in 1920 Société Générale des Transports Aériens -
SGTA) and the Lignes Latécoère (in 1921 Compagnie Générale d'Entreprises
Aéronautiques - CGEA) bore the names of their founders, the well-known aero
plane constructors. Their equally famous colleagues Caudron, Moräne,
Breguet, Blériot, etc., founded the Compagnie des Messageries Aériennes
(which in 1923 became Air Union, after amalgamating with Grands Express
Aériens, where, once again, Farman was to be found) 12. In Germany as wellknown
a constructor as Junkers also tried his hand at air transport (Junkers
Luftverkehr AG), but next to him powerful economic interests such as the
Deutsche Bank, AEG and shipping companies had also turned to commercial
air transport, creating the Deutsche Aero-Lloyd AG (which itself resulted from
the amalgamation of Lloyd Luftdienst GmbH and Aero-Union AG) 13. Powerf
uelco nomic groups were also at play in The Netherlands and in Belgium.
Large banks, shipping and commercial enterprises founded the Dutch
Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij (KLM) in 1919. In the same year, the
Belgian banks all got together to found the Syndicat (later Société)
National(e) pour l'Etude des Transports Aériens (sneta). This private group,
strongly linked with the colonial holdings active in the Belgian Congo, took
the initiative of creating Sabena four years later, in 1923. Again, the economic
11. See also his latest book: Marc DlERIKX, Blauw in de lucht. Koninklijke Luchtvaart
Maatschappij 1919-1999, The Hague, Sdu Uitgevers, 1999, 390 p. .
12. Henri MEZIERE & Jean-Marie SAUVAGE, L'aviation marchande de 1919 à nos jours, Paris,
Editions Rive Droite, 19992, p. 9-17.
13. This is treated extensively in Bernd-Marian APPEL, Entwicklungsbedingungen für
Luftverkehrsunternehmen in Deutschland 1919-1926, Frankfurt etc., Peter Lang, 1993
(Europäische Hochschulschriften, Reihe III, Bd. 565).
roots of the commercial air transport companies differed very much from one
country to another. This certainly had an important effect on business behav
ioura nd capacity in this young transport sector. The open, competitive and
more volatile environment of, for example, the US in the 1920s, contrasted
with the stable, quasi monopolistic context of the Low Countries, where the
nation's most important economic forces had mobilized in order to back one
single air transport enterprise. The backing of air transport enterprises by
aeroplane constructors, on the other hand, did not produce a viable, long term
solution for commercial air transport, as the French and British cases show.
3. The way in which public authorities were involved in commercial air
transport also showed marked differences. Stressing the profound contrast
between the United States and Europe is of course justified, but doesn't go far
enough. Public aid existed on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as direct gov
ernment intervention in the shaping of the business's structure. After the im
portant episode of the US Post Office's direct involvement in air (mail) trans
port, several legislative acts fostered the growth of private companies, sup
ported by public subsidies. In the early 1930s, Postmaster General Walter
Folger Brown actively helped shape the oligopolistic structure of US commerc
iaairl t ransport, where the "Big Four" (United, Eastern, twa and American)
dominated the market 14. But, of course, in good American tradition, none of
these enterprises were (even partly) in public hands - and this is one of the
great contrasts between the Old and the New World.
Nevertheless, within Europe diversity existed as well. Existing statist tradi
tions played a part in the modelling of commercial air transport. The laisser
faire tradition of British government originally led it to adopt a non-intervent
ionaitstittud e. In Churchill's famous and often-quoted words, commercial air
transport had to "fly by itself'. Consequently, no subsidies were granted in the
first crucial months of the air business. But soon enough this reserved attitude
was given up, and Great Britain experimented with several successive subsidy
schemes 15. Thus it joined the other European countries, where public subsi
dies were (more or less spontaneously and more or less lavishly) distributed.
In France, for example, subsidies were granted from the very start of commerc
iaailr t ransport - very much in line with this nation's Colbertian tradition.
These European subsidy schemes were intricate and often fluctuating. It
wasn't easy to find a system safeguarding the State's Treasury, while at the
same time stimulating the airline companies' performance (and, consequently,
the nation's international prestige), and avoiding their slipping into passivity,
uneconomic behaviour or outright parasitism. Early French aeronautics, for
14. Cf. F. Robert Van der Linden, "Progressives and the Post Office. Walter Folger Brown and
the Creation of United States Air Transportation", in William F. Trimble, ed., From Airship
to Airbus. The History of Civil and Commercial Aviation. Volume 2. Pioneers and Operat
ions, Washington-London, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995, p. 245-260. See also
R.E.G. DAVIES, Airlines in the US Since 1914, London, 1972.
15. More details in Robin HlGHAM, Britain's Imperial Air Routes 1918 to 1939, London, G.T.
Foulis & C°, 1960, chapters 1 and 2.
example, were marred by a complicated subsidy scheme (analyzed in Sacha
Markovic's contribution) that favoured a counter-productive course à la
prime. This led to an awkward situation: public money spent on commercial
air transport was described as le narcotique de l'aviation or as une prime à
l'inertie 16. The same criticisms were voiced, for example, in Belgium when
SNETA experimented with commercial flight (see my own contribution). A par
ticular form of public aid consisted of such initiatives as the provision of air
port facilities, infrastructure for flight routes, communication, etc. .This
makes international comparisons of aid systems all the more difficult. Con
temporaries sometimes tried to quantify the amount of public money devoted
to commercial air transport in the different countries, but this proved a very
difficult job, given the changing, confused and often hidden nature of these
subsidies 17. Since then, this subject has been somewhat neglected by today's
historians; perhaps it should be re-examined in a true comparative perspect
At least in Europe, these subsidy schemes stimulated another type of public
action, viz. State intervention in the concentration of airline enterprises or
even outright public (co-)ownership of the newly formed companies. In Bel
gium, public authorities and private capital took a nearly equivalent stake in
the capital of Sabena (with a small majority for the former), right from the
company's creation in 1923. This solution was adopted because of the negat
ive experience with subsidy-granting to the wholly private predecessor of
Sabena, the SNETA, and because of the Belgian colonial tradition, which was
based on the cooperation of public authorities and private holding societies.
The Dutch government became a major shareholder of the national aviation
enterprise in 1927, a few years after its foundation, because of KLM's constant
need of subsidies, which aroused some opposition in political circles. In the
other European countries, public authorities were not satisfied with the exist
ence of different and often competing airline companies, each of which re
ceived public support. They tried to stimulate aeronautical efficiency by incit
ing( or sometimes even pushing) the aviation enterprises to amalgamate into a
single, big, national company. This new situation was supposed to produce a
rationalisation of subsidies. These flag carriers were given the factual or legal
monopoly of commercial air transport and became the "chosen instruments"
of the nation's pride and expansionist drift. Imperial Airways came into exist
ence in 1924 and Deutsche Luft Hansa (DLH) in 1926. France, otherwise
known for its interventionist and centralizing traditions, paradoxically had
more difficulties reaching this stage. Air France was founded some years later,
16. Contemporary expressions cited in F. Thomas, La crise, op. cit., p. 25. More details on the
French subsidy schemes in Vital FERRY, "L'aide de l'Etat aux compagnies aériennes", in
Actes du colloque international L'aviation civile et commerciale des années 1920 à nos
jours. [...], Vincennes, SHAA, 1994, p. 259-275.
17. See for example the excellent survey in Oliver James LlSSITZYN, International Air Trans
porta nd National Policy, New York, Council on Foreign Relations, 1942, chapter vin.
in 1933, after a complicated evolution synthesised by Sacha Markovic. In all
these cases, State participation varied quite significantly. Right from dlh's
beginning, German public bodies (including regional and local authorities)
controlled an overwhelming part of its share (at least 72,5%) 18. In contrast,
public participation in Imperial Airways' capital was almost non-existent
(only £25.000 out of a total capital of £1 million). Criticism of iA's perform
ancew,h ich Peter Lyth analyses in his contribution, eventually led in 1940 to
the creation of a publicly-owned company, British Overseas Airways Corpor
ation, formed by fusing Imperial Airways with another, recently founded pri
vate company, British Airways. Air France was established as an enterprise of
mixed economy, with a minimum of 25% of the shares granted to the State 19.
In the following years, public ownership of airline companies was to increase
in all European countries, but this falls outside our focus.
4°) An individual company's performance is intimately linked to its net
work and fleet. This constitutes another set of factors open to comparative
analysis. Although profitability was still out of reach everywhere, the per
formance record of the companies shows important contrasts. Some figures
cited in a League of Nations survey of the European commercial air services
in the beginning of the 1930s are revealing 20. In 1932, load factors (million of
ton-kilometres utilised, in percent of millions of ton-kilometres produced)
varied from 31,8% in Belgium, over 42,3 and 42,5% in The Netherlands and
Germany respectively, to 51,4% in France and 62,1% in Great Britain. In the
same year, receipts from customers represented a mere 20,4% of total income
(including public subsidies) in France, 30,0% and 32,8% in Germany and Bel
gium respectively, while attaining 58,5% in The Netherlands and even 64,3%
in Great Britain. Apart from verifying the soundness and comparability of
such data (and recalling that the notion of "public subsidy" is a tricky one), it
is of course very difficult to explain these variations in performance. One has
to take into account such subtle qualitative aspects as management policies
and abilities; one has to analyse the cost structure; one has to evaluate the
impact of the routes flown and the types of aircraft used. At least for these last
two factors the contributions printed below contain some clues.
The four main colonial powers of the hour (Great Britain, France, The
Netherlands and Belgium) all had this priority: to link the "mother-country"
with its colonial possessions by air routes. By reducing travelling time for
people (mostly officials and businessmen) and mail destined to the remote
regions of Empire, the governments wanted to strengthen their position as
great powers. This even led Imperial Airways to neglect the British air links
with Europe (in this respect, the figures for Great Britain we have just cited are
somewhat fallacious) - a neglect which, in turn, led to criticism addressed to
18. B.-M. APPEL, Entwicklungsbedingungen ... op. cit., p. 214.
19. H. MEZIERE & J.-M. SAUVAGE, Les ailes françaises ... op. cit., p. 21.
20. Henri BOUCHE, L'économie du transport aérien en Europe, Genève, Société des Nations -
Organisation des Communications et du Transit - Comité de Coopération entre
Aéronautiques Civiles, 1935, p. 14-15.
this flag-carrier, as Peter Lyth points out. Flying to the Netherlands East Indies
was also deemed extremely important by the Dutch KLM, as Marc Dierikx
shows, but this successful venture did not hinder the company's overall dyna
mism. In my own contribution, I stress the importance of the Belgian Congo in
the birth and operations of Sabena, even if this company was relatively late in
establishing its first regular air link with the colony (1935). For the French
companies, the south-, east- and west-bound routes to or through the colonial
domains were also crucial objectives. For Germany, however, the interna
tional aeronautical environment was completely different. Having lost her
colonies after World War I, she concentrated on the creation of a dense internal
and Central-European network, while not neglecting other, non-imperial i
ntercontinental routes (particularly across the Atlantic, as explained in Dienel
and Schiefelbusch's essay). In the US, the domestic factor was of enormous
importance to airline growth. In the early years of North- American aviation,
depicted in R.E.G. Davies's article, international connections were of mar
ginal importance.
Some interesting contrasts are also to be found in aircraft procurement. The
type of plane used was of course a crucial variable, as it influenced the cost
and revenue structure of the individual airline companies, their carrying ca
pacities and frequencies. All observers (together with the authors of some of
the relevant papers printed below) have stressed the adverse effects of "having
to buy national". The French companies, dominated by the autochthonous
constructors, are one case in point. Later, Air France was saddled with the
same handicap: "Otage du "complexe militaro-industriel" installé dans son
propre tour de table [= governing board], la compagnie s'était condamnée
elle-même à ne pas pouvoir choisir le matériel le plus compétitif, ou à ne pas le
voir livrer à temps" 21. The same can be said of Great Britain: Imperial Airways's
"purchasing policy was designed to give a hidden subsidy to the air
craft industry" 22. The Deutsche Luft Hansa of course bought only German
aircraft, but the impact of this situation seems to have been different. Due to
the constraints of the Versailles Treaty, German aircraft production had to de
velop several compensating technological advances, which, according to
Dienel and Schiefelbusch, proved very fruitful for DLH. Smaller countries
such as Belgium and The Netherlands were in a different position. Belgium
never managed to produce any important "national aeroplane" on a commerc
iabalsi s. Nevertheless, the main (in fact, the only) aeronautical construction
plant of the country, which built foreign planes under licence, weighed heavily
on Sabena as a shareholder. Originally, this had a rather negative impact on the
21. Robert ESPEROU & Gérard MAOUI, Air France des origines à nos jours, Paris, Le Cherche
Midi, 1997, p. 33. See also H. MEZIERE & J.M. Sauvage, Les ailes ... op. cit., p. 74. Since no
scientific history of Air France exists, one should nevertheless be careful with such conclus
22. Peter Fearon, "The Growth of Aviation in Britain", in Journal of Contemporary Histoiy,
20, 1985, p. 30.
Belgian flag-carrier's performance. But in the second half of the 1930s, this
influence receded and Sabena enjoyed rather more freedom to buy the best
planes available on the market. The KLM was in a somewhat similar position.
After a period of rather close ties with the famous autochthonous constructor
Fokker, the Dutch airline bought American planes, putting itself in an excel
lentc ompetitive position. In the US, precisely, the aircraft construction busi
ness oriented itself to the booming demand of domestic air transport, produc
inegco nomically and technically sound planes, which were to dominate the
world's air transport in the coming years.
In short, the origins of commercial air transport were indeed characterized by
many contrasting factors, over and above the global constraints. These few
sketchy words of introduction will have attained their objective if they stimul
ateth e reader to give the following articles the attention they deserve and,
even more so, if they incite him or her to explore further these national paths
to the sky.