The Progression of Air Travel

One century ago this month, commercial air flight took off. And before we know it, we could be flying in cars, or taking family vacations to space. As airline bigwigs convene in London to talk the future, we glance at the bumpy path that got us here.

The Progression of Air Travel
Illustration by Raymond Biesinger Illustration by Raymond Biesinger

November 1910
First commercial flight
As a publicity stunt, Phil O. Parmalee, on behalf of the Morehouse-Martens Department Store, carries one bolt of silk from Dayton to Columbus, Ohio.


June 1939
First transatlantic passenger flight
Passengers pay $375 ($5,882 today) for a one-way trip from New York to Marseilles, France, on Pan American. Scheduled flying time: 29 hours.

April 1973
Federal Express launches
Fred Smith, a young entrepreneur, spearheads the eventual split between passenger and freight air traffic. Within a decade, FedEx is a $1 billion company.

May 1981
Frequent-flier programs take off
American Airlines introduces AAdvantage to its top 150,000 fliers. Today, more than 50 million people have signed on to the program.

February 2008
First commercial flight using sustainable fuels
Virgin Atlantic flies a Boeing 747-400 from London to Amsterdam using a 20% mix of babassu oil and coconut oil in one of its fuel tanks.

August 2008
In-flight Internet
American Airlines offers online access on select flights for $12.95. The following year, Virgin brings all flights online.


July 2010
Vertical seats
Now the third-largest airline in Europe, Ryanair announces plans to roll out vertical seats (otherwise known as practically standing) and to charge passengers to use the loo.