How Did American Airlines Get So Big?


Although not the oldest airline operating today, American Airlines is the largest by fleet size. With expanding international routes, it is a familiar livery all across the world. We take a look in this article at the airlines more than 80-year history, from domestic mail carrier to a major international operator, that brought it to where it is today.

American Airlines Boeing 707
American Airlines Boeing 707. Photo: Bill Larkins via Wikimedia

Early operations in the US – up to the 1930s

The beginnings of American Airlines came in the 1920s with cooperation between a number of small airlines across the US – including Southern Air Transport in Texas, Southern Air Fast Express on the west coast and Colonial Air Transport in New York. These started working together under the brand name of ‘American Airways,’ mainly operating mail services and serving 72 cities across the US.

American Airways Stinson
A Stinson aircraft used by American Airways. Photo: FlugKerl2 via Wikimedia

‘American Airlines’ was launched in 1935 when US businessman E.L. Cord acquired and renamed American Airways. Texan businessman C. R. Smith was hired as the new airline’s first CEO.

Developing the DC3 and passenger service

One of the most significant steps in American Airlines early history was the introduction of the DC3 aircraft. American Airlines CEO Smith worked with Douglas to develop this larger version of the already operational DC2. This version allowed for better passenger sleeper (or seat) capacity and longer range. It started operating with American Airlines in 1936.

American Airlines DC3
An American Airlines DC3. Photo: Library of Congress via Wikimedia

The DC3 really changed the service the airline could offer. They introduced passenger service between many key cities (not just mail or combined mail and passengers as before), including coast to coast services. These ‘Flagship’ services soon became one of their most popular and signature offerings – as they remain today.

American Airlines Flagship Skysleeper service
American Airlines Flagship Skysleeper service schedule from 1939. Photo: American Airlines via Wikimedia

Along with the new aircraft and services, American Airlines also started investment at airports at this time. They worked with New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia on the development of a new airport for the city.


And, to better serve passengers, they opened a club for their top passengers (known as ‘Admirals’) at this airport in 1939. Interestingly, they were initially refused permission to name this as the ‘Admirals Club’ due to the possible confusion with serving Navy Admirals and had to use the name ‘Flagship Club’ until this was resolved.

Admirals Club
American Airlines were the first airline to open a dedicated passenger lounge – the ‘Admirals Club’ name still remains today. Photo: American Airlines

Expanding in the 1940s

As with many airlines, service with American Airlines slowed during the Second World War. But they had already established themselves as a leading passenger carrier, and soon after the war they again resumed expansion.

They established a separate company, ‘American Overseas Airline’, in 1945, which began operating overseas flights to Europe. Likewise, ‘American Airlines de Mexico’ began Mexico services.

American Overseas Airlines Stratocruiser
An American Overseas Airlines Boeing Stratocruiser in Amsterdam in 1949. Photo: Nationaal Archief via Wikimedia

To improve domestic transcontinental service they introduced the Douglas DC7 in 1953. This allowed for a much improved non-stop service. This would expand again in 1959, with the introduction of the Lockheed Electra.

American Airlines Lockheed Electra
American Airlines Lockheed Electra aircraft. Photo: SDASM Archives via Wikimedia

Entering the jet age with the Boeing 707

Jet aircraft entered service with American Airlines in 1959, with the introduction of the Boeing 707. These offered faster and smoother flights and gradually expanded use on both intercontinental and international flights.

American Airlines 707
An American Airlines 707 in 1966. Photo: army.arch via Wikimedia

American Airlines also made several groundbreaking operational advances around this time. They opened the world’s first dedicated facility for flight attendant training in 1957 – the ‘Stewardess College’ in Dallas / Fort Worth. Also in the 1960s, they introduced the first electronic reservation and booking system – Sabre – in cooperation with IBM. Versions of this remain in use today.


Expansion through the 1970s and 1980s

International route expansion continued in the 1970s, with American Airlines now serving Sydney and Auckland (via American Samoa and Fiji). In 1971, they acquitted Trans Caribbean Airways, adding further to their Americas route map.

They also operated a separate domestic and international freight service at this time, using Boeing 707 and later 747 aircraft. ‘American Freighter’ continued operations until 1984.

An American Freighter 707 Aircraft.
An American Freighter 707 Aircraft. Photo: SDASM Archives via Flickr

Major operational changes came later in the decade when they moved their main headquarters from New York to Fort Worth. Texas in 1979. New hubs also opened at DFW airport in 1981 and Chicago O’Hare in 1982 – along with a switch to a more ‘hub and spoke’ flight operating model. The 1980s saw them adding additional hubs in San Jose and Raleigh / Durham – which served until the early 1990s.

Another first was the creation of a frequent flier scheme in 1981. The AAdvantage scheme would reward regular travelers with benefits and mileage currency – the first such attempt at building loyalty this way.

AAdvantage logo
The AAdvantage program started in 1981 and still operates today – of course with many changes! Photo: American Airlines

More acquisitions and cooperation in the 1990s

American started transatlantic service to London in 1982, but these were expanded in 1990 when they bought rival US airline Trans World Airlines’ (TWA) operations at London Heathrow. TWA was acquired entirely by American Airlines in 2001 after continued financial difficulties.

TWA Convair aircraft in 1971
TWA Convair aircraft in 1971. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia

They also took over routes from Eastern Airlines, covering various destinations in Central and South America. This expansion brought Miami onboard as another major hub for American Airlines. And with continued expansion during the 90s, they became a major carrier for the region.

Eastern Airways 747
Eastern Airways 747. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia

Airline alliances also started to form in the 1990s and American Airlines became a founding member of the Oneworld Alliance in 1999 (along with British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Canadian Airlines). They remain a key member today, with the alliance bringing operational benefits to the airlines as well as shared booking and loyalty benefits to customers.

Oneworld 20 years
American Airlines was a founding member of the Oneworld alliance – still going strong today and celebrating 20 years in 2019. Photo: American Airlines

American Airlines since 2000 and merger with US Airways

The terrorist attacks in New York in 2001 (involving two American Airlines planes) hit the US aviation market hard. Following this, American Airlines did not make a profit until the second quarter of 2005. Despite the downturn, expansion continued, including the introduction of new services to India and to China.

Financial difficulties returned following the 2008 financial crisis, and the parent company of American Airlines – AMR Corporation – filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011. A merger between AMR Corporation and US Airways was announced in February 2013. Following a review of objections based on competition and antitrust, a new joint operating certificate was issued by the Federal Aviation Association in 2015.

The combined airline became the largest airline globally (by fleet size), and would operate under the American Airlines brand.

US Airways A319
The merger with US Airways made American Airlines the largest operating airline globally. Photo: Cubbie_n_Vegas via Wikimedia

Throughout this, American has continued upgrading its aircraft fleet. In 2011, they ordered 460 new Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 aircraft, for delivery up to 2022. These are replacing the short- and medium-haul existing fleet, including all MD-80 aircraft (the last of this long-serving fleet was retired in September 2019).

Long haul operations have seen more orders for Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft – with orders for 89 new 787 aircraft as of April 2018 (both 787-8 and 787-9 aircraft).

American Airlines 787
American Airlines 787. Photo: Simple Flying

International expansion of the now largest airline in the world has continued. Services to Tokyo Haneda began in 2011, Los Angeles to Shanghai also in 2011 and Dallas Forth Worth to both Shanghai and Hong Kong 2014. Recent announcements in 2019 have seen services added to Krakow and Casablanca (their first service to Africa), and rumors of more to come!