Air passengers taking advantage of the recent holidays to travel to far-flung climes, or those regularly nipping a few thousand miles to be united with friends and family have good cause to celebrate this centenary year of commercial air travel.
It’s hard to imagine that this globally vital industry, averaging over 8 million passengers and 140,000 tons of cargo per day began 100 years ago with a single passenger, Abram Pheil, Mayor of St. Petersburg; travelling with a ticket won at auction for $400. It was an inauspicious start for an industry that today carries around 50 million tons of cargo worth in the region of $6.4 trillion per year, a figure representing some 35% of the value of all traded goods.
With funding organised by Percival Fansler, Pheil as passenger, and Tony Jannus as pilot, the 23 minute flight of Thomas Benoist’s airboat across Florida’s Tampa Bay on New Year’s Day 1914 went down in history not just as the inaugural journey of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, but that of commercial flight.
As the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced a year-long celebration of the centenary it’s certainly worth considering how far commercial flight has come in that time. Last year annual passenger numbers reached 3.1 billion, exceeding all previous records, and this year it’s anticipated records will be broken again with 3.3 billion journeys. The figures are staggering enough but even more so when one considers they are equivalent to 44% of the global population.
The contribution of commercial flight to all aspects of modern life is well-recognised by IATA director-general and CEO Tony Tyler who said, “The first flight provided a short-cut across Tampa Bay. Today, the aviation industry re-unites loved ones, connects cultures, expands minds, opens markets, and fosters development.” But the centenary year is not just about looking to aviation’s past, nor even to its present success. As Tyler says, “A hundred years is something worth celebrating. And we look forward to creating an equally remarkable legacy for commercial aviation’s second century.”