The Complete History of United Airlines

As one of the earliest airlines developed in the US, United Airlines has a long and colorful history. Over the years, the carrier has worked to raise the standard of air travel worldwide, and has helped to modernize the way airlines operate today.

United Airlines retired 747 in flight
United Airlines began as a company hoping to vertically integrate the aviation industry. Photo: United.

Before United Airlines

United Airlines came from somewhat humble beginnings in the early days of the US aviation industry.

William Boeing founded Boeing Airplane Company in 1916 as an aircraft manufacturer. With successful releases of Boeing Aircraft models, the company transitioned into operating as an air carrier for mail. The first successful mail delivery was in 1919. By 1928 a subsidiary, United Aircraft Corp, was established to operate as a full-service airline.

Under the United Aircraft Corp., the airline began to expand its business operations through a series of mergers and acquisitions across the US. United Aircraft Corp grew to include First Pacific Air Transport, Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, and Stout Air Services, who were already operating as a passenger airline.

A fast-growing airline, Varney Airlines, was also acquired by United Aircraft Corp, who had then become United Aircraft and Transportation Corporation (UATC). Founded by Walter Varney, Varney Airlines reflected modern airline operations after it expanded its business from mail to passengers using a Boeing 247 aircraft.

United Aircraft during takeoff
The first United flight was from Pasco, Washington, to Boise, Idaho on April 6, 1926. Photo: United.

Soon after the acquisition of Varney Airlines, United Air Lines was set up as the parent company for the subsidiaries. The conglomerate successfully integrated into the aviation industry from manufacturing to delivery of mail and cargo, to transportation services for civilians and the military.

Disbanding a conglomerate

United Air Lines faced political issues after a scandal arose in 1934, known as the Air Mail Fiasco. Major issues developed between airlines operating both as a mail carrier and passenger services. A couple of factors were involved with the scandal.

Smaller airlines had a difficult, if not impossible, time winning contracts to carry airmail. Contracts were usually awarded to larger companies who had efficient and widespread route capabilities. Airlines including United Air Lines were accused of having an almost-monopoly on the business, carrying airmail while using US Army Corps to fly the mail.

The second issue involved how revenue was generated for the airline. Up until this time, payment for mail services was based on the weight carried by aircraft, not volume of mail. As a result, companies such as United Air Lines were incentivized to carry passengers to increase weight, and junk mail was often added to boost the weight of the mail cargo.

The Air Mail Act of 1934 was passed to prevent faulty operations of airlines operating in both industries. United Air Lines was disintegrated into multiple businesses and airmail contracts were re-awarded. The Boeing Company maintained the manufacturing side of things while the official United Airlines company emerged for commercial airline operations.

United Airlcraft at Denver Hub
United Airlines is one of the biggest airlines with hubs across the US. Photo: United.

Modern United

United Airlines’ routes and hubs were still utilized from its former days as a mail carrier. It had already become one of the largest airlines in the country thanks to major hubs across the US: San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago, and Washington DC.

Today, United Airlines remain one of the busiest and most successful carriers in the world. Last year, United had the fourth highest market share among U.S. airlines, at roughly 15 percent of the market. They moved more than 158 million passengers worldwide, and they’re not done growing yet.

With a big rebrand on the cards for 2019, including new livery and new uniforms, United are still looking to the future. They’ll be Bombardier’s launch customer for a new 50 seater jet, and are still growing their fleet and improving service. Despite the challenges of the modern aviation world, United Airlines are in a great position to continue to thrive.