From Air Mail To Passenger Giant: The History Of United Airlines

United Airlines has been flying for nine decades. The founding member of Star Alliance serves six continents with its fleet of over 800 aircraft, but the Chicago-based carrier hasn’t always been the powerhouse that it is today. With roots in other aviation outfits, the company developed from a mail carrier to one of the world’s largest passenger airlines.

United Airlines Boeing 747-100 taking-off from Runway 25R with an American Airlines 767 parked at the terminal behind
United flew many groundbreaking aircraft over the years, including the Boeing 747. Photo: Getty Images

United’s early history is closely associated with that of fellow US aviation powerhouse, Boeing, having been created following a series of mergers and acquisitions from the company. After commencing services under the United Airlines name from the spring of 1931, the carrier went on to become a household name around and around the world. The airline boasts a bunch of records, including being the first US airline to order a jetliner, the first to publish an inflight magazine for a single airline, and the first North American airline to fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

A century ago

United’s story traces back to the launch of Boeing in the early 1900s, along with the subsequent introduction of several airlines in the 1920s. Varney Air Lines (VAL), National Air Transport (NAT), Pacific Air Transport (PAT), and Boeing Air Transport (BAT) were all making a name for themselves.

However, Boeing soon incorporated its subsidiaries and merged with Pratt & Whitney to form the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (UATC). This business then took on VAL, NAT, PAT, and BAT.

Varney Air Lines
Varney was a predecessor to what would become United. Photo: Smithsonian Air And Space Museum

The name is born

After a series of acquisitions, UATC formed what was then stylized as United Air Lines on March 28th, 1931, to manage all the branches. With Varney tracing its roots back to 1926, United claims to be the oldest commercial airline in its country.

The UATC’s progress caused a national stir. Notably, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government was worried about the aviation scene, and Senator Hugo Black began an investigation. The politician felt that major holding companies had colluded with the former postmaster general over the handing out of airmail routes to their operators.

As a result of the findings, the authorities canceled all airmail contracts. Subsequently, the war department took on these operations in a move that proved fatal. Along with just half of the routes now being served, there were 66 accidents and 12 deaths on these routes in less than half a year. Thus, the Air Mail Act was introduced in the summer of 1934, dissolving the aviation holding companies.

A new start

UATC was split into three separate entities, with United Air Lines conducting the core airline services. William A. Patterson became the new president, a post he held until 1963.

Thanks to the introduction of the Boeing 247 in 1933, passengers could fly across the US without having to stop overnight or change aircraft. Passenger activity started to grow, with United charging $160 ($2,868) one-way between Newark and San Francisco. However, rather than the nonstop flights available today, there were eight stops between the coasts.

United 247
A United 247 sitting in Paine Field in Everett. Photo: InSapphoWeTrust via Flickr

Passenger activity was curbed amid the United States’ entrance into the World War II theatre. Just like the rest of the country’s carriers, United redeployed its resources to help with the war effort. For instance, United’s 247-D was put to great use during the conflict. The company carried nearly 200,000 tons of personnel and materials over 21 million miles (33.9 million kilometers) with a mix of 247s and Douglas DC-3 Mainliners.

Despite its focus on the war, business activity wasn’t completely put on hold. United attempted a series of acquisitions during the war years and even merged with Mexican outfit Lineas Aereas Mineras.

Post-war growth

Like its counterparts, United’s core business shifted further away from general mail contracts after the war. Income from passenger services was increasing, and airlines no longer required economic support. So, in 1952, officials stopped subsidizing mail services.

The scaling up of passenger operations following the war can be seen by the numbers of customers served per year during the 1950s. In 1951, United reported around 1.8 billion revenue passenger miles. Impressively, in 1960, the figure was just under 5.8 billion. This number doubled five years later due to a merger with Capital Airlines in 1961.

These new passenger segments witnessed creative innovations that came about in the commercial sector. For instance, pressurized cabins were now a feature thanks to the war, and United introduced this technology on its network with the DC-6. This aircraft cut down the number of stops that were needed on transcontinental flights to just one. United carried on its relationship with Douglas in 1955 by becoming the first US operator to order jetliners amid its request for 30 DC-8s.

Docked DC-8s
The DC-8 helped United offers greater connectivity to the likes of Honolulu. Photo: Getty Images

Aircraft such as the Boeing 720, 727, and 737, Vickers Viscount, and the Sud Aviation Caravelle also joined the fold during the 1960s, setting United up for the perfect way to start the following decade, which saw the arrival of the first-ever widebody, the Boeing 747.

Long-haul triumphs

United was an early adopter of the 747, taking it on in the first year it was introduced with Pan American. On June 26th, 1970, United received its first 747-100. This was also the same day that Continental Airlines, which many decades later would merge with the airline, started flying the type. The 747 remained with United until November 2017, opening up a plethora of opportunities along the way.

The airline first flew the Queen of the Skies to Honolulu from San Francisco. Service with the plane was expanded at airports such as Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Boston, Miami, Chicago, Charlotte, and Washington DC. In the following decade, United’s international network was boosted with the 747. Thailand, Australia, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Guam all saw activity with the jumbo.

United made history with its jet aircraft. For example, it is the sole carrier to have operated Executive One, the call sign given to a civil flight carrying the US President. This was achieved on December 23rd, 1973, when Richard Nixon boarded a United DC-10 to head to Los Angeles from Washington Dulles. Moreover, in January 1988, Friendship One, a United Boeing 747SP, set the around-the-world air speed record of 36 hours, 54 minutes, and 15 seconds.

The carrier felt the impact of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act and started to incur losses in the years that followed. However, despite challenges, such as the strike of 1985, which saw United pilots go on a 29-day strike, United managed to adapt. For instance, it introduced MileagePlus in 1981, one of the first modern frequent flyer programs. The following year, United went on the become the launch airline of the Boeing 767-200, receiving its first units that August. These actions helped the operator become the first carrier to serve all 50 states with commercial airports.

United Airlines Boeing 767 in Flight
The 767 became a staple in United’s fleet. Photo: Getty Images

The growing presence continued in 1985 following the purchase of Pan Am’s complete Pacific Division. The decline of Pan Am also led to United acquiring the veteran airline’s routes to London Heathrow in 1991. Pan Am’s Latin American and Caribbean routes were also taken on.

The global rise continued during the 1990s. In 1994, United became the largest employee-owned corporation across the globe amid its Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).

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The new millennium

The turn of the century brought significant issues for United. Two of the aircraft hijacked in the 9/11 attacks were United’s – a Boeing 767 and a Boeing 757. Following the tragedies, US aviation suffered for years. United then filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2002.

Following the clearance of a restructuring plan, United exited bankruptcy in February 2006. However, the 2008 recession brought new concerns across the industry. With the change of economic climate, the operator eventually merged with Continental Airlines in 2012, and the parent company formally changed its name to United Airlines Holdings from United Continental Holdings in June 2019.

United adopted Continental’s livery style following the merger. Photo: Getty Images

United is currently going through a period of transition amid the pandemic. During this period, Oscar Munoz stepped down as CEO to be replaced by Scott Kirby. However, United once again showed its ability to adapt, being the only major airline to not retire any aircraft during the health crisis. In fact, the carrier is gearing up to welcome next-generation supersonic aircraft to its fleet before this decade is over.

What are your thoughts about the history of United Airlines? What do you make of the future of the carrier in this next chapter? Let us know what you think in the comment section.