Today’s American airline industry plays host to a wide range of carriers. From the ‘big three’ to low-cost giants like Southwest and Frontier, with everything including virtual airlines in between, there is a carrier for just about every scenario in the US. But where did it all start? Let’s take a look back in history to explore the story of America’s first airline.
A fixed-wing first
The first airline to operate in the US began to do so on January 1st, 1914. It was known as the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line. While it wasn’t the first-ever airline overall, it did operate the world’s maiden scheduled commercial services using fixed-wing planes.
Indeed, when Deutsche Luftschifffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft (German Airship Travel Corporation) commenced operations in 1909, it did so with, as the name suggests, airships. As such, the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line was a history maker in its own right. As the airline’s name suggests, it aimed to connect the Floridian cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa.
Being located across Tampa Bay from each other, the 23-minute direct flight was far quicker than land-based transport. Indeed, the circuitous route that traveling between the two locations required meant that rail travel took between four and 12 hours. Cars took 20 hours, and even taking a relatively direct boat across the bay still needed 120 minutes.
A grand departure
The St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line’s first flight, as seen in the photograph at the top of the article, was a rather grand occasion. The service used a Benoist XIV flying boat, known as the Lark of Duluth, and saw Anthony ‘Tony’ Jannus become the world’s first-ever fixed-wing airline pilot. This was despite there having been several doubts leading up to the launch.
Specifically, there were issues with the construction of the airline’s hangars, which were incomplete. Furthermore, the freight train that transported the Lark of Duluth to St. Petersburg went missing in the run-up to the new carrier’s first-ever flight.ADVERTISEMENTNonetheless, with a crowd of some 3,000 spectators present, as well as an Italian band, the airline’s first departure was met by considerable fanfare. It had been helped by coverage in the St. Petersburg Times. The first passenger was former St. Petersburg mayor Abram Pheil, who won an auction for the ticket with a $400 bid ($10,943 today).
Tony Jannus’s legacy in Tampa
The St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line made 172 flights between January 1st and May 5th, 1914. This spell outlasted its original contract by five weeks. One-way tickets cost $5, equivalent to around $137 in today’s money. This was also the fare for 100 lb of freight.ADVERTISEMENT
The carrier set a precedent for scheduled commercial air services using fixed-wing planes, and was a key early step towards today’s rich and diverse airline industry. Tony Jannus’s legacy lives on at Tampa International Airport, where there is a pale ale named after him at Cigar City Brewing’s onsite brewpub. A parking area also bears his name.