Happy 90th Birthday American Airlines: Where You’ve Been, Where Are You Going?

Last week was United Airlines’ 90th birthday.

Today is American Airlines’ 90th. Happy Birthday American Airlines.

American Airlines Boeing 787

American dates itself to 1926 and Robertson Aircraft Corporation, whose chief pilot was Charles Lindbergh. A number of small airlines such as Southern Air Transport, Southern Air Fast Express (‘SAFE”.. get it?), Universal Aviation and Colonial Air Transport were incorporated as American Airways in 1930, and then American Airlines in 1934.

Credit: American Airlines

C.R. Smith became President in 1934. With subsidized funding from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Smith ordered the airline’s first large fleet of aircraft: the DC-3. Smith was politically well-connected, having introduced FDR’s son to his second wife (he was best man in the wedding). He was close to Lyndon Johnson and served as Johnson’s Secretary of Commerce. He’s credited with lobbying the FAA to impose mandatory retirement on pilots in order to remove older more expensive labor from his payroll and replace them with cheaper workers.

Over time American has owned every single Boeing jet — even Boeing 717s (which were originally McDonnell Douglas planes) through their TWA acquisition, though those were never flown in commercial service. Although I believe the only pre-jet Boeing aircraft they owned was the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, by virtue of their acquisition of American Overseas Airlines which was later sold to Pan Am.

In the 1950’s they were “American’s leading airline.” In the late 60s they introduced “Fly the American Way.” Starting in the mid-70s and through the mid-80s it was “We’re American Airlines, doing what we do best” (although they didn’t actually tell you what that was).

The 1980s brought “the on-time machine” and for 15 years perhaps their most memorable slogan, “Something special in the air.” That was a whole lot better than the sort of creepy “We know why you fly.”

The airline launched Sabre, the computer reservation system, now independent. They launched SkyChefs, now owned by Lufthansa. They were the first with gogo inflight internet.

American introduced ‘Super Saver’ fares which pioneered the idea of revenue management as a way to counter low fare carriers — operate your own low fare carrier on the same plane as your traditional high fare one.

Many of the industry’s top executives got their start at American. Many of the industry’s top frequent flyer executives got their start at AAdvantage.

This is the airline George Clooney earned 10 million miles with in Up in the Air.

Where are we now? American is the world’s largest airline, having successfully integrated the passenger-facing elements of US Airways (although not yet even announcing an update to most legacy US Airways aircraft to provide a consistent inflight product).

American Airlines Airbus A319 Economy Interior

In some ways, though I fly the airline most, I cannot figure them out. They initially rolled out a scaled back (and frankly disgusting) US Airways catering standard across the network. Then last summer improved catering somewhat. Sometimes they seem to want to be US Airways which in some ways means becoming its predecessor America West.

But then they demonstrate a commitment to international first class with new lounges and preflight dining and even the introduction of better catering first for Sydney flights but that we can expect across the network, and even Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle champagne.

American Airlines Airbus A321T First Class

American Airlines Boeing 787 Business Class

I’m not sure whether American wants to be a premium carrier, or an ultra discount one. I’m not sure whether they know. 90 years are now in the past, and they have a future that we’ll all watch and see unfold.

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. The airline business changes constantly, but it’s not that hard to figure out where the “new” American Airlines is going. They’re going anywhere their customers will pay for, plus anywhere they feel they need to be competitive. As long as there are enough people to pay for fancy int’l premium class service, there will be improvements in int’l premium class. The domestic market is trickier because they have to compete against expanding low cost carriers that offer a poor product. Since most pax buy tickets based on price, and 87% of their customers only fly the airline once a year, there will always be a tension between cost and service. Seems pretty logical that, at this point, we’re going to see domestic service levels increase for passengers who buy “profitable” tickets, while at the same time that customers who buy cheapo tickets will receive service more akin to what you get when you buy a Spirit or Frontier ticket.

  2. Any idea when the new long haul first catering will be rolled out on flights other than Sydney?

  3. Very nice article, but the first link regarding United’s 90th brings me to a page from 2002 about Milton Friedman’s birthday.

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