The Story Of American Airlines – How The Airline Is What It Is Today


American Airlines is the world’s largest airline by fleet size. With over 950 aircraft bearing the American livery, many passengers in the U.S. and around the world will be familiar with their aircraft. Let’s step back in time and see how American Airlines came to be.

The 1930s

American’s story really started to unfold by 1936. After a few years of flying, businessman E.L Cord branded the conglomerate with the name “American Airlines”. After putting together a team, American Airlines started working to create a new aircraft. The product was the DC-3 which became American’s flagship.

American Airlines DC-3 “Flagship”. Photo: Wikimedia/Cory Watts

The first flights operated between New York and Chicago. The DC-3 allowed American Airlines to transport passengers and their baggage. Previously, American Airlines relied on mail transport to make a profit. The DC-3 changed this, and American Airlines was on its way to becoming a major airline.

As American Airlines expanded their DC-3 service, they also started looking at improving the passenger experience on the ground. The first Admirals Club came about at this time. American also worked to build up New York’s LaGuardia Airport, where another Admirals Club was also developed. Back then, Admirals Clubs were almost as exclusive as it is today, with invitation-only policies for entry. Later, American did begin offering paid access to their Admirals Club too.

The 1940s

As World War II raged on, American Airlines had to slow down some of their expansion. However, in the years following the war, American returned to the spotlight and was, for some time, the largest American airline.

In 1945, American Airlines established “American Overseas Airlines” and began to offer transatlantic flights.

American Overseas Airlines in Stockholm. Photo: Wikimedia/Swedish National Heritage Board

The 1950s

American Airlines had their eyes set on transcontinental operations. For this, they needed an aircraft that could fly from a city like New York to a city like Los Angeles in under eight hours. At that time, domestic flights could only be eight hours or under due to crew time restrictions.

American turned to their preferred aircraft manufacturer, Douglas, and the DC-7 was created. The DC-7 was a major success, with American Airlines operating a significant number of this aircraft. The DC-7 was primarily used for nonstop service across the U.S.

American Airlines Douglas DC-7. Photo: Wikimedia/Jon Proctor

In the late 1950s, American Airlines opened the “Stewardess College” in Dallas, now their largest hub. The Stewardess College was for flight attendant training. It was the first official flight attendant training facility in the world.


In 1959, American Airlines began flying the Lockheed Electra. However, soon after starting service with the aircraft, AA flight 320 crashed on approach to New York LaGuardia. 65 out of 73 passengers on board died.

American Airlines Lockheed Electra. Photo: Wikimedia/Jon Proctor

The 1960s

As new advancements in technology made jet aircraft a reality, American Airlines started flying the Boeing 707.

American Airlines Boeing 707. Photo: Wikimedia/Perry Hoppe

Jet aircraft were much safer compared to turboprop and propeller aircraft. They also significantly reduced flying time and were a favorite for major airlines.


Also in the 1960s, American Airlines introduced the first electronic booking system for passenger reservations.

American Airlines made history in 1964 when they hired Dave Harris, the first African-American pilot to work for a commercial airline.

The 1970s

At the start of the decade, American Airlines merged with Trans Caribbean Airways and thus started offering flights from the U.S. to the Caribbean.

Trans Caribbean Airways and American Airlines merged in 1970. Photo: Wikimedia/Christian Volpati

Continuing American’s trend of ‘innovative hiring’, Bonnie Tiburzi became the first female pilot for a major American Airline when she started flying for American.


In 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act was formed. The airline industry was now deregulated in areas such as route creation, new airline establishment and fares. This, essentially, turned the American aviation market into a free market.

The 1980s

In 1981, American Airlines instituted the first airline loyalty program. The name AAdvantage has stuck with the program since its inception.

Following airline deregulation, American Airlines opened a hub at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. This was closely followed with new hubs in Chicago, San Jose, Raleigh-Durham, and Nashville. During this time, American Airlines focused on building a hub-and-spoke model, and also began transatlantic services out of Dallas.

American Airlines flew a wide variety of aircraft in the 1980s, including various 747 models and the 767-200.

American Airlines 747-100. Photo: Wikimedia/Ted Quackenbush

The 1990s

American Airlines continued to grow in the 1990s. And, on March 27th 1991, American Airlines crossed the one billionth customer mark.

American Airlines gained a hub in Miami after taking over Eastern Air Lines’ Latin American routes. At the same time, they discontinued their hubs at San Jose, Raleigh-Durham, and Nashville.

In 1997, American Airlines banned smoking from all of their flights.

Then, in 1999, American Airlines partnered with British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Canadian Airlines, and Qantas to found the Oneworld alliance.

American Airlines 777-200ER in Oneworld Livery. Photo: Wikimedia/Alan Wilson

The 2000s

American Airlines flights 11 and 77 were involved in the September 11th attacks that forever changed aviation. In the years following the event, American Airlines continuously lost money until finally earning a $58 million profit in 2005.

During this time, American Airlines inaugurated many services across the globe to destinations such as China and India.

US Airways merged with America West in 2005. Photo: Wikimedia/Paul Carter

Then, in 2005, US Airways merged with America West Airlines. Doug Parker, CEO of America West, was retained as part of US Airways management after the merger.

In 2008, an economic downturn hit American Airlines hard. Due to lower profits, AA shut down their Kansas City maintenance station and downsized operations at their Puerto Rico hub.

During this time, American Airlines also began to refresh their fleet with new Boeing 737s and Airbus A320 family aircraft. This came after disputes with the FAA regarding maintenance on their aging MD-80 fleet.

American Airlines purchased 737 aircraft to replace their aging MD-80s. Photo: American Airlines

The 2010s

American Airlines officially inaugurated its transatlantic joint venture with British Airways and Iberia Airlines in 2010. In addition, American Airlines strengthened their joint venture with Japan Airlines and inaugurated multiple services to Tokyo-Haneda.

Expanding from Dallas, American Airlines began flights to Seoul, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. This further solidified American’s hub status at Dallas where they remain the dominant carrier.

In 2011, however, AMR Corporation, the parent company of American Airlines, suffered some financial troubles. They filed for bankruptcy and American Airlines began a cost-cutting campaign to return to profitability.

In 2013, it was announced that American Airlines and US Airways would merge, creating the world’s largest airline by fleet size. As a result, the American Airlines brand would be retained. American also revealed a new livery and logo. After some negotiations with the Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation, US Airways and American Airlines were officially granted a single operating certificate in 2015. The new CEO of the merged airline was former America West CEO, Doug Parker.

American Airlines merged with U.S. Airways in 2013. Photo: American Airlines

U.S. Airways flew its last flight, number 1939, on October 16, 2015. 1939 was symbolic, as that was the year that US Airways was founded.

The Future

As 2020 approaches, American Airlines remains the largest operating airline in the world. AA is one of the ‘big three’ American carriers, maintaining dominance in several key markets including Dallas, Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Miami.

As of now, American Airlines is a strong position to keep flying. With brand new 787 and 777 aircraft, American Airlines is looking to expand their long-haul operations and continues to phase out older aircraft with newer, more efficient aircraft.

American Airlines 787. Photo: American Airlines

American will have to work on improving their dismal on-time performance. In the short-run, American Airlines will have to focus on maintaining their large and complex fleet.

Have you flown American Airlines? Do you like American Airlines? Let us know in the comments below!