Making The World’s Largest Airline: The History Of American Airlines

American Airlines is the largest airline in the world. With nearly 100 years of history, the airline has seen plenty of highs and lows. The oneworld airline has flown everything from Douglas DC-3s to the Boeing 777. The Texas-based aviation giant has pushed through, growing from its roots as a mail carrier to one of the most well-known airlines in the world.

American Airlines is the world’s largest airline, but it did not get that title overnight. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

American traces its roots to 1926 when Charles Lindbergh flew the first flight of what would eventually become American Airlines. Carrying mail, the flight set in motion the carrier’s transformation into a passenger airline in the 1930s. Flying the name of its home country, the airline grew tremendously, including pioneering the now-lucrative transcontinental routes using a Douglas DC-7. Boasting the oldest frequent flyer program of major US airlines, the airline pioneered many innovative technological and network strategies. Coupled with a series of mergers that strengthened the airline, it now holds an enviable amount of brand recognition.

The early days

American Airlines traces its history to April 15th, 1926. On that day, the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh flew the first “American Airlines” flight. Before the American Airlines known today came about, the plane carried US mail from St. Louis, Missouri to Chicago, Illinois. Like most other airlines at its time, flying mail was a lucrative option for airlines and set in motion the growth of passenger-focused airlines as planes grew bigger and better.

Integral to this story is C.R. Smith. Taking the helm at the airline in 1934, he came to the position after helping bring many smaller airlines together to create the new American Airlines, which stemmed most directly from “American Airways.” Under his leadership, American Airlines worked to streamline its route network and simplified its fleet – a general strategy airlines continue to employ today.

Arguably one of his most significant contributions to aviation, Smith worked closely with Donald Douglas to create the DC-3. The airline became the first airline to fly it in commercial service between New York and Chicago, ushering in the era of passenger flying.

Making The World’s Largest Airline: The History Of American Airlines
The DC-3 was an integral aircraft to the early days of American’s growth as a passenger carrier. Photo: Getty Images

After World War II took all of American’s initiatives and put them on pause, with Smith heading to serve for the Air Force, he came back and instantly began to revitalize American Airlines for the post-war boom in travel. This included working with aircraft manufacturers and pushing them to develop new types of aircraft, including the Convair 240 and the Douglas DC-7.

The DC-7 was a gamechanging aircraft at the time. Using this plane, American was able to fly more people faster between New York and Los Angeles at a time when airline travel was generally slow and inefficient on longer routes. American inaugurated DC-7 service on transcontinental flights from 1953

Making The World’s Largest Airline: The History Of American Airlines
The DC-7 helped American gain an early edge on transcontinental routes. Photo: Jon Proctor via Wikimedia Commons

Entering the jet age

The DC-7 was turning into old technology toward the end of the 1950s as jet airliners grew into reality. Not too long after inaugurating DC-7 service, American Airlines bet on the Boeing 707, and it paid off.

On January 25th, 1959, American Airlines introduced the first transcontinental jet service in the United States using the Boeing 707. It instantly became a success, and American solidified its position in an increasingly competitive airline market. American and Boeing’s history started. Over the next two decades, the 707 would be integral to expanding American’s fleet and building out its route network.

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American Airlines was one of the first airlines to bet on Boeing’s jet product. Photo: Getty Images

Another milestone American hit came in 1964. It became the first airline to hire an African American pilot. Dave Harris flew for the airline for over thirty years before his retirement. In 1973, American Airlines hired its first female pilot. Named Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo, she was the first female pilot for a major US airline. She flew with American for 26 years.

Come 1978, the airline industry was gearing up to face a radical change. With the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act, the market became free from government control over routes, airline startups, and fares, birthing the modern era of airline management and strategy. This led to some major changes at American Airlines.

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The rise of the jet age brought a rise in passenger numbers and airlines as we know them today. Photo: Getty Images

Managing the competition

In a highly competitive world, not every airline was in a good position. Large airlines before deregulation faced new competition and weak networks that they could not correct soon enough, and some were staring down the barrel of bankruptcy or worse. American Airlines made some vital moves at this time.

In 1981, American Airlines introduced the AAdvantage loyalty program. Kicking off the launch of frequent flyer programs at major airlines, the program was one of many ideas American had to remain competitive in a new airline world.

Making The World’s Largest Airline: The History Of American Airlines
American Airlines never had a large fleet of the Boeing 747, but it was an operator for some time. Photo: Getty Images

Not long after deregulation, American Airlines moved its headquarters to Texas and began building up its largest hub at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). The airline turned to the hub-and-spoke model to direct traffic to international routes and remain profitable.

As some airlines saw their demise, including Eastern Air Lines, American Airlines saw an opportunity to capitalize on the new market conditions. With Eastern’s failing, American picked up the carrier’s Latin America service, setting in motion what would become one of the airline’s strongest geographies.

Making The World’s Largest Airline: The History Of American Airlines
Turning to a hub-and-spoke model was key for American’s strategy post-deregulation. Photo: Getty Images

On March 27th, 1991, American Airlines flew its one billionth customer. This came as other airlines continued down the road to demise. American Airlines had bought TWA’s routes to London Heathrow, giving the airline an access point to an airport that would remain restricted for US operators into the 21st-century. According to the New York Times, American paid $445 million for six routes between the US and London.

In 1999, American Airlines helped pioneer a new form of airline partnerships. It joined British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Canadian Airlines, and Qantas to found the oneworld alliance.

Making The World’s Largest Airline: The History Of American Airlines
American Airlines is a proud member of the oneworld alliance. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Into the 21st-century

The world of aviation changed again, forever, on September 11th, 2001. Two American Airlines flights were involved in the terrorist attacks that claimed thousands of lives. In the aftermath, the airline industry faced a financial crisis, and American fought hard to survive.

Just a few months before the attacks of 9/11, American Airlines bought TWA’s assets. TWA was the latest carrier in a list, including giants like Eastern and Pan Am to cease operations.

It would take until 2005 for American Airlines to come out of the financial crisis that the 9/11 attacks brought on. The airline tried new routes and shuttered others. Once it did come back to profitability, it did not stay that way for long.

Making The World’s Largest Airline: The History Of American Airlines
The post 9/11 years were very challenging for the airline. Photo: Getty Images

The 2008 financial crisis hit the airline hard. It made further route network adjustments, retired some of its aircraft, closed its Kansas City maintenance base, and weathered the crisis as best as possible.

In 2011, American Airlines placed its largest aircraft order ever. The airline ordered 460 narrowbody aircraft, comprised of both Boeing 737s and Airbus A320 family aircraft. This kicked off an aggressive fleet renewal and streamlining period, leading to the retirement of the MD-80s and the introduction of the Boeing 787s, 737 MAX, and Airbus A321neos.

Shortly after placing this order, American Airlines filed for bankruptcy. As it restructured, it also started to look around for a merger partner. It needed a merger partner to combat the might of Delta Air Lines post-merger with Northwest and United Airlines post-merger with Continental. It found one in US Airways.

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The merger with US Airways helped create the American Airlines known today. Photo: Getty Images

The two airlines announced their intention to merge on Valentine’s Day 2014. This merger helped create the world’s largest airline, the largest operator of the Airbus A320 family worldwide, and the American Airlines known around the world today. The final US Airways flight operated in October 2015.

American entered an expansion spree just before and continued after the merger into 2020. The airline added more flights to Asia, grew its Pacific presence, and strengthened its European offerings on the back of a joint venture with fellow oneworld partners.

Making The World’s Largest Airline: The History Of American Airlines
As American Airlines approaches its 100th anniversary, it has plenty to look forward to. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

In February 2020, the airline announced the creation of a West Coast International Alliance with Alaska Airlines. As part of that, American is targeting London, Bangalore, and Shanghai from Alaska’s hub in Seattle. Shortly thereafter, it announced a Northeast Alliance (NEA) with JetBlue. Using this, the airline announced new flights to Delhi, Tel Aviv, Athens, and more.

Coming out of the crisis, American Airlines has a long history of weathering storms and trying out some innovative ideas. The next few years will be crucial in writing the next chapter of American’s history. Thus far, history has shown not to count anything out when it comes to the world’s largest airline. It did not spring up overnight, but it is undoubtedly going to keep putting up a fight.

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