Happy Birthday United Airlines! You Surely Don’t Look 90!

United is celebrating 90 years today.

When a Swallow aircraft took off from Pasco, Washington, on an airmail route bound for Boise, Idaho, on April 6, 1926, it marked the beginning of 90 years of aviation firsts for United Airlines. Since then, United has connected more than 4 billion people to important business meetings, family events, new experiences and cultures, and, most importantly, each other.

“On our 90th birthday, I couldn’t be more proud of our rich heritage and the exciting future ahead of United. I want to thank our customers for your loyalty over the years, and we look forward to serving you for many more as we continue to elevate our customer experience today and into the future,” said Oscar Munoz, president and CEO of United Airlines.

“I also want to express my deep gratitude to United’s more than 84,000 aviation professionals for your unsurpassed teamwork, passion and dedication. You’ve helped make the world a smaller place by safely and comfortably uniting billions of people around the globe.”

United is highlighting their ‘firsts in aviation’ to mark this milestone, including:

  • First flight kitchen (1936). Although American may have exceeded United here, with the founding of SkyChefs (since sold off to Lufthansa)
  • Live television in the 1960s. “In the Boeing 707’s inflight lounge, passengers could sit together and briefly watch live TV while flying over major metropolitan areas.”
  • First jet order and launch customer for the Boeing 777
  • First airline to fly to all 50 states, service to Delaware never made sense for anyone but airlines used to make decisions — like United’s round the world service they inherited from Pan Am — for things other than business prudence.

It hasn’t always been all sunshine and unicorns, like the reported $47 million kickback to an entity controlled by the pilots union to avert a holiday strike. (Or the political kickbacks that brought down former CEO Jeff Smisek.)

United’s livery of my youth. By Torsten Maiwald, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

And United Airlines President Pat Patterson, the Wells Fargo loan officer who had authorized funding for Pacific Air Transport which was later acquired by Boeing Air Transport and which was ultimate merged in with other carriers to become United, who while best-known for approving the hiring of in-flight nurses (which morphed into onboard flight attendants) is also the person more than any other who brought union control into the operation of the airline business. He believed unions were closer to their workers, and so better understood their needs, and thus he deferred to them on scheduling.

Many of us remember living through the 2000’Summer From Hell’ pilot job action. Frequent flyers loathed ‘starnet blocking’ or ‘throttling’ of award space that preceded the merger with Continental (Continental incidentally traces its own roots to Walter Varney). And of course the merger itself was disastrous for flyers — especially technologically — United remains in need of a new passenger service system.

Today United serves an amazing number of destinations. They’ve finally made progress with fleetwide internet. There’s renewed hope of a joint flight attendant contract that would finally complete the 6 year old merger of United and Continental. They have a new CEO, and have made modest but symbolically important customer-facing improvements like snacks in coach and better coffee (so far only in lounges, onboard this summer). I’m flying United more and more (again in a few days), though I don’t expect to earn status with them.

Perhaps most importantly United still uses Rhapsody in Blue but could use a good dose of Gene Hackman in its marketing again, I think.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Brian sumers – I loved the animated ads you’re talking about, but I didn’t think they were especially effective. “It’s time to fly” didn’t tell you why to fly… United.

  2. Yep- definitely look 90. I could tell, because I had their first flight attendant looking after me on my last transpac.

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