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Evolution of Airline Service in Los Angeles

American Airline, Washington, Los Angeles, 1941

Passengers aboard an American Airlines airliner bound from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, 1941. Photo by John Collier, Jr. at the Library of Congress.

The above airline passengers were enroute to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.. Prior to their flight, they would have enjoyed an airport lounge, a passenger benefit first introduced by American Airways (later American Airlines) just the year before. They were seated in a Douglas DC-3. American was the first airline to put DC-3s on their routes, considered then, except for Pan American's Flying "Clippers," the most comfortable airliner in the sky. The two passenger seats seen here were bench-style but comfortable and offered ample legroom. The aircraft had a crew of three – two pilots and one cabin attendant. This particular flight had no sleeping berths, so there were up to 26 other passengers on the flight. Carry-on bags were stored in a secured baggage rack at the cabin rear, accessible during flight. The woman passenger traveled with an infant, so, of schedule choices at the time, this flight likely had departed at 8:30 a.m. that morning. Passengers were allowed to smoke, including in the single washroom, except during take-off and landing. Along the route, after Washington, D.C., the plane was to stop in Nashville, Memphis, Dallas, Fort Worth and El Paso. Judging from the darkness outside the window and the wake baby, the travelers were probably somewhere over West Texas during the early evening hours. Passengers had been served lunch after departing Nashville and dinner after Fort Worth. By the time the plane eventually touched down in Los Angeles, or more specifically, at Grand Central Terminal in Glendale, it was about 12:45 a.m., Pacific Time. The entire trip from Washington, D.C., including stops, lasted just over 19 hours.

The airfare for this trip was $139.75 ($2,942 in 2023 dollars) for a one-way ticket or, for a round-trip ticket, $251.54 ($5,295 in 2023 dollars). Because the baby traveled on mom's lap, the child flew free. Until the 1970s, air travel was expensive and considered the domain of business people and people with much more money than the average American. Today, the relatively low cost of air travel makes it accessible for most people. In 1941, 4.3 million people traveled by air across the United States. In 2022, that number was 937 million.

L.A.'s First Scheduled Airline Link

The first regularly-scheduled airline service offered in Los Angeles County was established in 1919 by Chaplin Air Lines. The service flew passengers between San Pedro and Santa Catalina Island. It was the first scheduled air passenger service in California and only the second in the United States (after the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line began operations in Florida in 1914). See Chaplin Air Lines - First Regularly-Scheduled Air Passenger Service in California.

L.A.'s First Scheduled Land-Based Airline Link
(and First Scheduled Land-Based Airline Link in the Nation)

On March 1, 1925, Los Angeles-San Diego Airline launched the nation's very first regularly-scheduled airline service between land-based airfields (not involving seaplanes and flying boats). The airline was owned by San Diego-based Ryan Airlines Inc., which also built Spirit of St. Louis, the aircraft used by Charles Lindbergh for the first trans-Atlantic flight. This air passenger route connected San Diego with Los Angeles. One of the two aircraft flown by the airline was a Davis-Douglas Cloudster (built in Santa Monica), modified with an enclosed cabin that seated ten passengers. The Los Angeles terminus was an airfield that was once located at Western Avenue and 99th Street in South Los Angeles. The site is believed today to be at or near Jesse Owens Park.

Ryan Airways, Los Angeles-San Diego Airlines

Passengers board Los Angeles-San Diego aircraft before flight, 1925. Photo from the collection of the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

The inaugural flight was more of a promotional show. All three of the airline's aircraft flew the L.A. to San Diego together, leaving at 10 a.m. Passengers were all invited, consisting of company officials, reporters and more than dozen film celebrities. The celebrities were involved in order to generate publicity (these were directors Robert Vignola and Irving Cummings and actors Hedda Hopper, Veray Reynolds, Belle Bennet, Fred Windemere, Creighton Hale, Lou Tellegen, Pauline Garon, Marjorie Daw, Anita Stewart, Laura La Plante, Ann Cornwall and Nita Naldi). Curiously, the small fleet of planes received an escort to San Diego by several U.S. Army and Navy aircraft. In San Diego, the planes were greeted by city officials, including San Diego's mayor. At the end of a day of celebratory events in San Diego, the inaugural flight entourage returned to Los Angeles.

Regular daily service commenced the following day, offering a single daily 9 a.m. flight from Los Angeles to San Diego and a return flight from San Diego at 4 p.m. Flights lasted 90 minutes and round-trip fares were $22.50 ($386 in 2023 dollars). In 1926, the airline explored opening a route between Long Beach and San Diego. This, however, never materialized. Despite carrying 14,630 passengers by 1926, the airline found itself unable to sustain its business. It ceased passenger operations by the end of 1926.

Ryan Airways, Douglas Aircraft

Modified Davis-Douglas Cloudster for carrying passengers. Photo from the collection of the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

Ryan Airways, Douglas Aircraft

Passenger cabin interior in modified Davis-Douglas Cloudster. Photo from the collection of the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

On July 21, 1927, Maddux Air Lines stepped in to restore the Los Angeles to San Diego air link. The airline flew the Ford tri-motor 12-passenger aircraft. A one-way fare was $15 ($252 in 2023 dollars). Initially, the airline operated from a small dirt strip named Inglewood Site, but would later become LAX. The strip at the time, however, proved to be unsatisfactory, so Maddux moved to better facilities at Chaplin/Rogers Airport in the Carthay neighborhood of Los Angeles and, later, to Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale.

L.A.'s First Sustained Scheduled Airline Link

The first sustained, ongoing, year-round air passenger service to Los Angeles debuted in 1926. Then, Los Angeles-based airmail carrier Western Air Express (later Western Airlines and then merged into Delta Airlines in 1987) carried the first scheduled air passengers into Los Angeles. The flight originated in Salt Lake City. Western Air Express had been contracted by the U.S. Postal Service to fly mail between western cities, but was allowed to also offer passenger service, as long as mail was given priority. Two Salt Lake City residents, businessman Ben Redman, president of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, and John Tomlinson, reserved the airline's first two passenger slots for the trip to Los Angeles. The flight was piloted by Charles "Jimmy" James.

On May 23, 1926, passengers Redman and Tomlinson checked-in for the Western Air Express inaugural flight, wearing coveralls and outfitted with helmets, goggles and parachutes. They also brought box lunches. They boarded the Douglas M-2 aircraft and took their place in the mail compartment, using mail sacks as seats. The pilot instructed them on using the parachutes and, since the aircraft lacked a lavatory, provided them with tin cups to use.

Western Air Express, Vail Field, Douglas M-2, Aircraft

Parcels loaded to Western Air Express Service aircraft at Vail Field (in current City of Commerce), 1927. Aircraft is Douglas M-2. Mail was loaded in compartment forward of pilot. Inside there was where passengers were seated. Photo from California Historical Society Collection at USC Library.

The flight took off at 9:30 a.m. Along the way, they encountered a dust storm. Five hours later, they landed in Las Vegas to refuel. The flight ended at Vail Field in Montebello, three hours after departing Las Vegas. A crowd of reporters and photographers were there to meet them and note the event. Western Air Express continued to operate out of Vail Field through 1930, before moving their terminal to Alhambra Airport.

At the time, the airfare for the Los Angeles-Salt lake City route was $90 ($1,492 in 2023 dollars) for a one-way ticket and $150 ($2,487 in 2023 dollars) for a round-trip. Air passenger service to and from Los Angeles quickly expanded after that.

L.A.'s First Airline Link to Arizona

On November 28, 1927, Standard Air Lines (a subsidiary of Aero Corporation of California) established an air passenger route between Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson (adding stops in Douglas and El Paso in 1929). The airline operated from Los Angeles at the same Western Avenue and 99th Street airfield earlier used by Los Angeles-San Diego Air Lines. The airline's Los Angeles to Phoenix round-trip airfare was $58.50 in 1929 ($1,015 in 2023 dollars) and, for the Los Angeles to El Paso route, $139.50 ($2,431 in 2023 dollars).

Standard Air Lines, Aero Corporation of California

Image of Standard Air Lines aircraft from the airline promotional brochure, circa 1929. Brochure imaged at TimeTableImages.com.

L.A.'s First Airline Link to San Francisco

On April 14, 1928, Maddux Air Lines opened the first regularly-scheduled air passenger route between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Maddux aircraft departed Los Angeles at 8:15 a.m., stopped in Bakersfield and Fresno, and arrived in Oakland at 12:45 p.m. Passengers then transferred to a ferry in Oakland to their final destination of San Francisco. From San Francisco, travelers could connect with another airline, West Coast Air Transport, to fly out to Portland and Seattle.

Maddux Air Lines, Airline, Los Angeles, San Francisco

Maddux Air Lines Ford tri-motor aircraft at Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale, circa 1928. Postcard image from L.A. Almanac Vintage Postcard Collection.

On May 26, 1928, Western Air Express launched its own Los Angeles-San Francisco route, flying its new 12-passenger Fokker tri-engine aircraft. The northbound flight, departed Vail Field Vail Field (in current City of Commerce) at 10:30 a.m. and made stops in Fresno and Oakland (and by reservation, Bakersfield and Visalia), before arriving in San Francisco. The southbound flight from San Francisco arrived at Vail Field at 1:35 p.m. The air service cut the L.A.-San Francisco journey from 12 hours by train to three by air.

L.A.'s First International Airline Link

By February 16, 1929, Maddux Air Lines had connected Los Angeles air passengers, via San Diego, to Mexico, specifically, to Agua Caliente in Tijuana. This was L.A.'s very first international air connection.

Maddux Air Lines, California, Mexico, Air Travel

Maddux Air Lines promotion for their new route to Mexico. Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, Feb. 16, 1929.

L.A.'s First Airline Link to New York

On July 7, 1929, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) inaugurated a coast–to–coast route that combined rail and air links between New York and Los Angeles. The entire trip took about 48 hours to complete, with each rail and air link lasting approximately 12 hours. Passengers traveled at night by train (presumably sleeping) and by air during the day.

For the westbound journey from New York to Los Angeles, passengers departed New York by train in the evening, delivering them to Columbus, Ohio, by the following morning. There they boarded a TAT plane for the air link to Waynoka, Oklahoma. Along the way, the plane made stops in Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City and Witchita. After arriving that evening in Waynoka, passengers again boarded a train for overnight travel to Clovis, New Mexico. After arriving in Clovis that morning, passengers were ferried by car to an airfield in Portair, where they boarded another plane for the final air link to Los Angeles. The final flight included stops in Albuquerque and, in Arizona, Winslow and Kingman. The final, late afternoon touchdown was at Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale. From there, passengers could receive car service to Downtown Los Angeles.

Passengers could continue the cross-country journey that evening by catching the train in Los Angeles for San Francisco (adding an additional 12 hours of travel time) or wait until morning to fly there via Maddux Air Lines from Glendale.

The journey eastbound was done in reverse. Fare for the entire trip was $352 ($6,110 in 2023 dollars). For a traveler at the time, this trip offered to save at least 24 hours of travel time versus the entire cross-country trip by train.

Transcontinental Air Transport

Portion of TAT time table brochure, 1929. From collection of TimeTableImages.com.

Also see: Grand Central Airport - First Major Airport in the Los Angeles Area

An American Airways (later American Airlines) airfare table, dated October 15, 1930, listed one-way airfare from Los Angeles to Atlanta to be $147.15 ($2,539 in 2023 dollars).

American Airways, Map, Air Travel

American Airways national air route map, circa 1930 - CLICK ON MAP FOR LARGER IMAGE. Map from Sunshine Skies.

L.A.'s First Pan American Airways "Clipper" Link

In 1934, Pan American Airways established a seaplane "clipper" base in the Los Angeles Harbor in San Pedro for service to Mexico.

Pan American Airways, Clipper, San Pedro, Los Angeles

Pan American Airways Clipper docking in Los Angeles Harbor at San Pedro, circa 1940. Postcard image at Famous Aviation Postcards.

L.A.'s First Airline Link to Hawaii and Asia

In 1939, Pan American Airways (Pan Am) introduced the first air link between Los Angeles and Hawaii, when China Clipper service was established between San Pedro Harbor and Honolulu.

Hawaii had quickly became a popular new tourist destination for Americans during the 1930s. Until 1936, the only way to get there was to travel by ship for five days. In 1936, Pan American Airways offered a faster alternative. Their flying "clipper ships" could get you to Honolulu from California in about 17 hours. However, travelers had to catch Honolulu-bound flights from the airline's base in Alameda, California. Pan American had already been operating a clipper base in Los Angeles Harbor, but this only provided flights to Latin American. In 1939 (or, at the latest, by 1940), the airline added Hawaii-bound flights from the San Pedro base. The flight would leave San Pedro at 4 p.m. and arrive in Honolulu at 8:30 a.m. on the following day. If a traveler wanted, they could continue the flight to New Zealand, or transfer in Honolulu to another clipper flight to Manila, Singapore, or Hong Kong. The flight to Honolulu took about 18 hours and 30 minutes.

Trans-Pacific air travel was expensive. A round-trip ticket to Honolulu in 1941 cost $500.40 ($10,533 in 2023 dollars). Round-trip to Manila cost $1,330 ($27,996 in 2023 dollars). Round-trip to Hong Kong cost $,1368 ($28,796 in 2023 dollars).

Pan American Airways, Hawaii

Pan American Airways Hawaii travel poster, circa 1938. Poster image from Pan American Airways at Library of Congress.

In 1950, Pan American replaced their iconic clipper seaplane with the much faster Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. They also moved operations from Los Angeles Harbor to Los Angeles International Airport. The newer aircraft cut flight time between L.A. and Honolulu to as little as seven hours and 20 minutes.

L.A.'s First Non-Stop Airline Link to New York

On October 19, 1953, Trans World Airlines (TWA), using one of the most advanced airliners of the time – the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation - inaugurated the first regularly scheduled non-stop air service between Los Angeles and New York.

LAX, Los Angeles International Airport, Trans World Airlines, United

Airliners on the tarmac at LAX. A TWA Lockheed aircraft, with red-striped triple tail fins, is parked, tail to the terminal. Postcard image from L.A. Almanac Vintage Postcard Collection.

L.A.'s First Scheduled Airline Link to Tokyo

By 1954, Pan American World Airways (renamed from Pan American Airways) was offering regular flights from Los Angeles to Tokyo, with stops in Honolulu and Wake Island. Depending on the type of aircraft flown (a DC-7 or B-377 Stratocruiser, the flight could take as little as 32 hours and 15 minutes from Los Angeles. According to a 1958 Pan Am fare schedule, tourist-class, round-trip airfare for the route was $878 ($9,176 in 2023 dollars).

B-377 Stratocruiser

Passenger Louge, B-377 Stratocruiser, no date. Photo from the collection of National Air & Space Museum.

L.A.'s First Non-Stop Airline Link to Europe

On January 1, 1961, Pan American World Airways flight PA121 arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from London, opening the first non-stop route between Los Angeles and London. Using the new Boeing 707 jetliner, the flight lasted 11 hours and 42 minutes. It carried 37 passengers and 13 crew. According to a 1963 Pan Am fare schedule, a tourist-class, round-trip fare for that route, by jet, cost $778 ($7,596 in 2023 dollars). Flight PA121 information source: The Aeroplane, Jan. 6, 1961.

Pan American World Airways, Boeing 707, Airliner

Pan American World Airways Boeing 707 airliner at LAX, 1962. Photo by Jon Proctor, permitted by GNU via Wikimedia Commons.