First Commercial Flight

Airlines · 4 min read · Apr 16, 2022
First Commercial Flight

The first commercial flight took place long before commercial aircraft and the airlines we know now even existed.

Also, while Ohio is well known as the aviation birthplace thanks to the Wright brothers, the first commercial flight took place in a different place.

We invite you to keep reading as we reveal all the details of the first commercial flight, the airline that operated it, and the pilot who flew the plane.

History of commercial aviation

Commercial aviation history is believed to have started in the United States of America in the mid-1920s with the services provided by Western Air Express, which is considered the first among the many commercial airlines that have existed in the national air transport history.

However, there are some who believed that air travel history really started years before with the first scheduled passenger airline service taking place even before the first World War. What detractors of this theory claim against it, it is the fact that the service was not offered on an actual aircraft.

So, what was the first commercial airline flight?

Based on chronological records and the simplest definition of a commercial flight, the first flight in commercial aviation history would be the one that saw a flying boat taking off from St. Petersburg, Florida, and landing in Tampa Bay after a 27-kilometer flight that took 23 minutes to complete.

This was the first passenger flight, a historic flight that had only one paying passenger, former St. Petersburg mayor Abram C. Pheil, who won a bid to fly on January 1st of 1914 by paying $400, which is equivalent to $11,200 today.

The hybrid aircraft was designed by Thomas Benoist, an aviation entrepreneur from St. Louis, according to the State Historical Society of Missouri who was joined in the commercial aviation venture by Percival Elliott Fansler, a Florida sales representative for a manufacturer of diesel engines for boats.

Together, Benoist and Fansler created the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, which could be considered the first commercial airline. However, there are some who believe this was not an actual airline but a simple airboat venture, and one that lasted only four months.

Yet, aviation enthusiasts claim this first flight paved the way and opened the doors for current airlines and transcontinental flying. This belief is based on the fact that the flight reduced the time to travel between the two cities by 90 minutes, something we now take for granted since we see flying from London to New York in a few hours as something natural.

An old-fashioned airplane controlled by one pilot flying in the sky.

The pilot of the first flight

Tony Jannus was the pilot of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line inaugural flight, which is why he is considered the world’s first commercial pilot. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Jannus was an experienced test pilot and barnstormer, and he was already popular across the aviation community.

Before becoming one of the main shareholders in the Benoist Aircraft Company, one of the most highlighted achievements in his flying career was carrying Capt. Albert Berry aloft to make the first parachute jump from an airplane on March 1st of 1912.

He flew the hybrid aircraft over the water at 50 ft (15.2 m) but without getting any higher. One of the most relevant anecdotes of the flight was that Jannus had to land for a moment to adjust the misfiring engine of his aircraft before being able to continue to the final destination in Tampa.

He was also known for giving flying exhibitions, flying tests, and training other pilots. In fact, Jannus died on October 12th of 1916 when his airplane crashed into the Black Sea while he was training Russian pilots.

And what was the first US commercial airline then?

As we said, there are some who believed Western Air Express was the first airline to come to life. However, it is difficult to argue that the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line could be considered the mother of all airlines.

If we take a look at the numbers during its short four-month existence, the organization had a quite profitable and healthy business.

The line flew two times daily, six days every week. They charged a regular fare of $5 per passenger, equivalent to around $140 today, and $5 for 100 pounds of freight. According to the records, tickets were sold out 16 weeks in advance. Then Benoist added a second airboat and new routes were covered to nearby cities like Sarasota, Bradenton, and Manatee. Roger Jannus, Tony’s brother was also hired as the second pilot.

Clearly, these are facts that make the organization look like a regular airline, especially if we consider the moment in history when it operated.

Although the airline only operated for nearly four months, it moved a total of 1,205 passengers. If you are wondering what happened and why did the airline disappear, the answer is that Florida’s winter residents began heading back north in late March and passenger interest declined quickly.

Western Air Express Fokker F.10 aircraft parked on a tarmac of an airport.
Image source: SDASM Archives

Western Air Express

Of course, we cannot leave Western Air Express aside in this story. As we said, many consider, including researchers in, that the airline offered the first scheduled airline passenger service in 1926 connecting Salt Lake City with Los Angeles.

According to a certificate in the collection, Mr. Ben F. Redman of Salt Lake City, Utah was the first official passenger, and Jimmy James the first pilot.

The organization also boasts of having a postcard commemorating the First Anniversary of the inaugural airmail flight of Western Air Express. On this postcard, the airline states being “the world’s first economically successful air transportation system”.

In any case, what is true is that commercial aviation was still very expensive at the time, so having a profitable business with a constant cash flow was definitely something to be proud of. It was not until the moment when the Second World War ended that manufacturing plants helped to make this scheduled service more accessible for any paying passenger.

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Jet pilot @NASA

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