The Birth of Commercial Aviation-Part Four - The Air Mail Service Pilots and the Airlines - April 24, 2009

The Birth of Commercial Aviation – Part Three The Air Mail Service Pilots Pay Scale – April 17, 2009
April 17, 2009
The Birth of Commercial Aviation – Part Five The Airlines – The Pilots – The Unions – May 01,2009
May 1, 2009
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The Birth of Commercial Aviation-Part Four – The Air Mail Service Pilots and the Airlines – April 24, 2009

This week we finish up this series and hopefully I have sparked an interest for some of you to look back and connect with your past. There are a number of resources available that will allow you, as an aviator, to connect with your roots and the “Third Dimension Blog” is one of those resources. I invite you to join me now as we talk about the beginnings of our profession.

Quote of the Week

“Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight—how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.”— Richard Bach “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”

The Air Mail Service Pilots and the Airlines

Following the Air Mail Act of 1925, Congress almost immediately went to work on what would be the Air Commerce Act of 1926. This new piece of legislation gave the government responsibility for fostering air commerce, establishing airways and aids to navigation, granting licenses to pilots and airplanes, accident investigation and making or enforcing safety rules. To review, in 1925 the Post Office turned over the air mail routes and contracts to private companies and in 1926 the government decided to regulate those companies as well as the rest of aviation. It appears that free enterprise was not the economic model of choice Congress preferred.

Now that the stage was set for government regulation the power brokers went to work and by 1930, the Postmaster General decided that he needed legislation that would allow him to enter in to long term agreements/contracts for airmail with rates based on volume or space rather than weight. This proposed legislation would also allow the Post Office to consolidate routes, if and when it was in the national interest to do so, because he believed the changes would promote larger and stronger airlines.

The Postmaster General got what he wanted and proceeded to hold a series of meetings in Washington to discuss the new agreements/contracts. The meetings were later dubbed the “spoils conference” because Postmaster General Brown gave them little publicity and purposely invited only a handful of people from the larger airlines. He designated three transcontinental airmail routes and made it clear that he wanted only one company operating each service, rather than a number of small airlines handing the mail off to one another across the United States. The Postmaster General got what he wanted. He got three large airlines (American, TWA and United) to transport the mail coast-to-coast — but his actions also brought about political trouble that resulted in major changes to the system just two years later.

In 1932, with the election of a new administration and under the leadership of President Roosevelt, things began to change. The new administration began to hear from the smaller airlines that they had been unfairly denied airmail contracts by Postmaster General Brown. To reinforce this fact, the press discovered and reported that a major contract had been awarded to an airline whose bid was almost three times higher than a rival bid from a smaller airline. Congressional hearings followed, chaired by Senator Hugo Black of Alabama, and by 1934, the scandal had reached such epic proportions that it prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to cancel all mail contracts and turn mail deliveries over to the United States Army.

This decision by the Roosevelt Administration proved to be disastrous because of accidents and the death of numerous Army Pilots, so one month later there was a reversal of the administration’s decision. It was at this point that the Air Mail Act of 1934 was passed. The act gave back the air mail contracts to private companies, the bidding process was restructured and made more competitive, and former contract holders were not allowed to bid at all. However, the companies that were now barred from the bidding simply changed their names and chief executives and moved forward with the new process.  The result was a more even distribution of the government’s mail business, and lower mail rates that forced airlines — and aircraft manufacturers — to pay more attention to the development of the passenger side of the business. It is important to note that between 1926 and 1934, the airlines received more than 60 million dollars in revenue from the Post Office, so even though the passenger side of the airlines had become the desired focus of the Roosevelt Administration, people also understood that the airmail subsidies made the system work.

Now the we have addressed the skullduggery of the time let’s remember that in 1929 we had a financial meltdown called the Great Depression so times were desperate for all concerned but the new airlines were really in trouble and their salvation was the Post Office or U.S. Government. Sounds a little like what is happening today, but no Tarp money is being handed out yet.

Next week we will move forward with how economic events impacted the pilots and the airlines and then the following week, we will try to wrap it up with the birth of the Civil Aeronautics Board. Until then, take some time to look back, connect with your past and remember as an aviator you are a “Gatekeeper of the Third Dimension”.

Protect your profession, your future and the future of your fellow aviators.

Robert Novell

April 24, 2009