100 years in the sky: how the world's major airlines went from carrying mail to crossing the globe

As two of the world's oldest airlines celebrate their centenaries this year, we look back at how the earliest carriers shaped jet travel

Founded in 1919, KLM is the world’s oldest airline still flying with its original name. Courtesy KLM
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It was early morning on May 14, 1908, when Wilbur Wright – one half of the renowned Wright brothers – made an easy landing on the beach at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina with a man called Charles Furnas sitting beside him. The men had been airborne for fewer than 30 seconds, but it was the first time a plane had flown with a passenger on board. 

This paved the way for commercial flight and, fewer than six years later, Tony Jannus flew the first scheduled commercial airline flight, travelling from Florida's St Petersburg to Tampa Bay. The world's first paying passenger, St Petersburg Mayor Abram Pheil, bought his historic ticket for the 34-kilometre flight at auction for $400 (Dh1,469). 

The first ever scheduled passenger airline was piloted by Tony Jannus. The flight paved the way for today's commercial aviation industry. Courtesy flickr / Florida Memory 

Since then, the world of commercial flight has evolved at pace. From that seconds-long maiden journey, the industry soared into the golden age of jet travel, smashing through the sound barrier along the way, as well as launching a super jumbo capable of carrying more than 500 passengers in one go.

Two pioneers in the industry, British Airways and KLM, celebrate their centenaries this year. Along with a handful of other airlines, the two companies helped to launch and shape air travel as we know it

KLM: the world’s oldest airline

Economy class on a KLM flight in 1958. Courtesy KLM

KLM is the world's oldest airline still flying with its original name. The Dutch company was launched in 1919, with its first scheduled flight coming a year later, between London and Amsterdam. On board the aircraft were two journalists, a letter from the mayor of London and a stack of newspapers. Today, KLM operates the same daily route, albeit with a much shorter flight time and vastly different cargo.

The airline's first intercontinental route was from the Netherlands to Indonesia. This long-haul service took weeks to complete. Since 1960, KLM has operated jet planes, making it possible to go almost anywhere in the world within 24 hours. The flight from the Netherlands to Indonesia can now be undertaken in under 15 hours.

KLM's most recent advertising campaign urges travellers to reconsider the need to fly in a time of eco-objections to carbon emissions from aviation. Courtesy KLM

KLM currently flies about 30 million passengers across the world each year, but in its latest advertising campaign, the airline encouraged customers to consider the environmental impact of travelling and even question whether flying was necessary. 

Avianca: second in the sky 

Avianca, the flag carrier of Colombia is the world's second oldest airline. Courtesy Avianca

The second-oldest airline in the world is also the oldest in the western hemisphere, although you may not have heard of it. Colombia's Avianca began operations only two months after KLM was formed. The airline's first journey was a 16km mail delivery flight from the bustling seaport of Barranquilla to Puerto Colombia. The following year, the airline's first passenger flight departed from Barranquilla, this time bound for Puerto Berrio.

In 1961, it entered the jet age when it leased a handful of Boeing 707s from American airline Pan Am. The Colombian company continued to add more aircraft, creating additional flight paths and destinations to its ever-expanding network.

But in the late 1980s, as Colombia suffered due to the influence of drug lord Pablo Escobar, the airline became another one of his victims. In 1989, an Avianca plane exploded shortly after take-off, killing 110 people. It was blamed on a bomb planted by one of Escobar's men. 

Avianca has since absorbed several other airlines from neighbouring countries and is today one of the largest airline groups in Latin America, with a fleet of 173 planes.

British Airways: celebrating a century of air travel

British Airways BEA, BOAC, Negus, Chatam Dockyard and Landor liveried aircraft at Engineering, London heathrow on 09 April 2019
(Picture by Nick Morrish/British Airways)

British Airways was officially founded in 1974, so why is it marking its 100th birthday this year? The airline traces its true origins back to the world's first scheduled flight from London to Paris. This happened in 1919, courtesy of a tiny airline called Air Transport and Travel. British Airways didn't ­officially come into being until 1974, when the British Overseas Airways Corporation merged with British European Airways.

One of the most important moments in BA's aviation history took place on October 4, 1958, when the BOAC flew about 40 people from London to New York. It was the first passenger flight across the Atlantic and took 10 hours and 22 minutes.

A first for British Airways as a supersonic jet gets set to take off from London bound for Bahrain on January 21, 1976. Courtesy British Airways 

BA also claims to have flown the world's first passenger Concorde flight, when its supersonic jet took off from London bound for Bahrain on January 21, 1976. At the same time, an Air France Concorde was flying from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. 

EgyptAir: first to take flight in the Mena region

EgyptAir was the first airline in the Middle East. Courtesy EgyptAir

Think of the Middle East aviation scene and you're likely to think of Etihad Airways or Emirates. But

in 1932, EgyptAir operated the first commercial flight in the Mena region when it piloted a Spartan Cruiser from Cairo to Alexandria. Originally launched as Misr Airwork, the airline became United Arab Airlines in 1957, before being renamed EgyptAir in 1971.

The Cairo-based airline was the first in the region to acquire Comet C-4 jets. This upgraded model of the world's first commercial jet could fly long or medium distances, allowing EgyptAir to expand its route network, establishing its dominance in the region. In 1960, the airline became the first in the Middle East to fly Boeing 707s.

In 2011, with Egypt in the grips of revolution, the airline weathered the storm but not without difficulty. Estimates suggest that during this time, the company lost about $885 million

Today, the airline operates more than 500 flights per week out of Cairo International Airport, flying to destinations across the world.

Qantas: the Flying Kangaroo

Qantas flew its first flight from Australia to the UK in 1935 - the flight lasted 12 day. Courtesy Qantas

Founded in 1920, Qantas started as a means to transport mail between the Queensland towns of Charleville and Cloncurry. The Australian airline's name is actually an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services. It is sometimes considered to be the world's oldest continuously operating airline, challenging KLM for the title because Qantas remained airborne during the Second World War when the Dutch airline was forced to suspend its services. 

Flying roo fins on the Qantas fleet. Courtesy Qantas

In 1935, the first Qantas flight from Australia to the UK took off from Brisbane. The flight lasted 12 days, with several stops, but it marked a turning point for the Australian airline. The journey became known as "The Kangaroo Route" and inspired the airline's celebrated logo of the leaping marsupial. 

Last year, Qantas became the first airline in the world to fly non-stop from Australia to London. In March last year, flight QF9 touched down at London's Heathrow Airport after a 14,489km journey from Perth that took a little more than 17 hours.

Today, Qantas has a partnership with Emirates and together they fly 84 times a week from Australia to Dubai. Earlier this year, Qantas took top honours in safety rankings by www.airlineratings.com, establishing the airline as the safest in the world. 

United: a history of firsts and a champion of women

Ellen Church was the world's first air stewardess, she was hired by United. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Founded in 1926, United Airlines might not have been the first American airline to fly commercially – that honour lies with Delta – but it does have an impressive history of firsts. As well as being the first airline to train pilots using flight simulators, United was also the first to hire a female flight attendant. In 1930, Ellen Church convinced Boeing Air (the name of the company before it was rebranded as United) to hire her and eight other women, all of whom were nurses, to look after passengers in air.

The historic move effectively created a new profession for women who had, until then, not been considered fit to fly. Church blazed the trail for the 25,000 flight attendants that travel across the world with United today.

Founded in 1926, American-based United Airlines #herarthere project is a move to make women's art more visible. Courtesy United Airlines 

The airline has continued to champion women in various ways. In a recent campaign called #herarthere, the airline exhibited women's art in the sky as livery on two Boeing 757s. The idea was to create two giant travelling canvasses that the whole of the US could look up to, giving women more visibility in the art world. 

United's network today is one of the largest in the world, with its aircraft flying to 355 airports in 48 countries across five continents.

Aeroflot: the most stylish staff in the sky 

Aeroflot has overcome multiple challenges since it launched in 1923. Courtesy flickr / Alan Wilson 

Founded in 1923, Russian airline Aeroflot has overcome several challenges. Earlier this year, Aeroflot was awarded seven stars for safety – the highest mark possible – by www.airlineratings.com. But the evolution hasn't been plain sailing. Aeroflot's early days were marked with incidents and accidents and the fatality count was high. In 1976 alone, the airline was involved in 33 incidents, many of them fatal. Over the course of 44 years, the airline was linked to a whopping 721 aviation incidents and the Aircraft Crashes Record Office reports that 8,231 passengers died in Aeroflot crashes. 

While part of this was down to the sheer volume of passengers the airline was carrying compared to most other services, it was also related to its fleet of Russian-built aircraft.

But in the 1990s, things changed. Firstly, the airline ditched many of its home-built jets and purchased western aircraft to fly in their place. Secondly, the break-up of the Soviet Union caused Aeroflot to shrink rapidly, with the company splintering into several regional airlines.

Since then, Aeroflot's safety record has improved ­rapidly. Today, it has a fleet of more than 200 planes, consisting almost exclusively of Airbus and Boeing aircraft. The fleet includes 777s and A330s, both of which are rated among the safest models in the world.

Alongside its upgraded aircraft, Aeroflot has re-branded with new livery and updated uniforms. In 2013, its newly designed crew uniforms were voted the most stylish in the sky, according to a survey carried out by flight booking website Skyscanner.

Aeroflot flight attendant