Easy Air – A Brief History Of Commercial Flight

Air travel has come a long way since Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier invented the hot air balloon in the late 16th century, followed of course by Wilbur and Orville Wright developing the first aeroplane, together with Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin producing his gas powered airship in the early 1900s.

By the mid 1930s the Hindenberg Zeppelin was the most luxurious form of travel in the skies costing the equivalent of $5,000 in today’s money for a one-way trans Atlantic ticket – the seventy well-heeled passengers were treated to dining room, library and a lounge complete with a grand piano! The journey time from Germany to the USA was a speedy 60 hours and this seemed to be the future for air transportation until Hindenberg exploded in 1937.

See incredible footage of the disaster by clicking here.

Hindenberg Observation Lounge

And The Dining Room

No it was aeroplanes that were the future – it was in Croydon that London’s first commercial airport started in 1920 with flights on 4 seater planes to continental Europe. The earliest commercial aircraft were the likes of Goliaths, De Havilands and Fokkers – try saying that after a couple of beers!

By the late 1930s Douglas, Lockheed and Boeing had taken over, producing planes not dissimilar to the ones we see today. By the mid ’50s almost every major country had a national airline, but it was still only the very rich that could afford to travel this way and anything but a short journey across the channel was a time consuming affair.


How time consuming? Read this story recounted by my parents about their trip home from their military service in the Far East, as it illustrates the point……


“It was 1957 – we had met and married in Singapore – a small outcrop at the foot of Malaysia, which was then part of the British Empire. At that time the Far East seemed like it was on another planet – it took us four weeks to get there on a troop ship.


Six months after getting married and three years after setting foot in Singapore, our overseas stint was over – the return home was to be much quicker than the journey out as we would return by Hermes aeroplane.


Neither of us had ever flown before of course, so it was with nervous excitement that two twenty year-olds boarded the spartan monster of an aircraft – seating was rows of wooden benches and the only in-flight entertainment was a sing along organised by the Regimental Seargent Major.


The departure was early Monday morning and the first destination was Bangkok for a four hour stop to refuel both plane and passengers.

The Winged Beast

The cold and noisy aircraft continued on to Delhi for more fuel and then to Karachi for the first overnight stop at an old Sherpa army base.


Next day it was long-haul – twelve hours to Baghdad and a night at an Arabian hotel eating honey-soaked biscuits and drinking thick black coffee.


The evening of day three would find us finally reaching Europe – Brindizi in Italy via a fuel stop in Ankara, Turkey.


It was a tired couple that left Italy on Thursday morning but happily it was to be the final leg of the journey home – or so we thought.


The aeroplane developed technical problems – all that stopping and starting no doubt – this meant a 48-hour delay in Paris. We would have loved to wander whilst there, but with snow falling, no money and still dressed for the tropics, we sadly never left the airport.


We eventually arrived home on Saturday evening, nearly six days after leaving Singapore!”


Do you remember your first flight – I don’t think my parents will ever forget theirs!


Twenty years ago I flew to Singapore on a pilgrimage to visit that legendary church where it all began for my family nearly forty years previously. The Singapore Airlines jumbo jet got me there in 14 hours – about 1/12th of the time it had taken my parents all those years before.

How the world has shrunk in one generation. We may have lost supersonic Concorde, so you can longer leave London at 2pm and arrive in New York midday on the same day, but with the advent of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Zeppelin like spaciousness has returned and another hour has been sliced off the time of that London to Singapore route.

Is It A Dream?

What we also have of course are the budget airlines plying their trade across the skies of Europe. There are now around thirty low cost carriers based in Europe, flying thousands of routes and carrying over 100 million passengers a year. This is replicated across every continent as well nowadays.


The market has come a long way in the years since easyJet started two routes from Luton to Scotland in 1995 (it now has around 700 routes in 32 countries).

The number of routes has really taken off in the last few years following the expansion of the EU into the old Iron Curtain – easyJet has become the largest UK carrier and is now flying outside Europe to Africa & Asia, Ireland’s Ryanair are said to be considering going trans-Atlantic to cement their position as Europe’s biggest airline and the likes of Wizz Air, German Wings & Air Berlin have sprung up to take advantage of our desire for short breaks.


Flag carriers British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa and the like have had to come up with their own low-cost, no frills strategy to compete with the ‘young’ upstarts. Good news for us consumers.


So now for less than the cost of a train ticket from London to Liverpool, you can fly to Morocco for the spices and snake charmers of Marrakech – to my mind infinitely more interesting than a chip butty and an evening with Ken Dodd and his Diddymen.


Knotty Ash Spice Market

What next – ₤300 to Sydney, ₤250 to Hong Kong or Tokyo? Don’t bet against it.


The explosion in low cost air travel has led to a new kind of British Empire – there are now ¼ million Brits with 2nd homes abroad. It is often quicker and cheaper to get to the far reaches of Europe than to a caravan in North Wales or a cottage in Cornwall.


In 1955 a flight to Europe from London cost as much as an average monthly salary, now it is just a few hour’s wage.


How times have changed.

Coming soon – A Brief History Of Train Travel……..

 Link to my Wanderlust page…………

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One comment

  1. Very moving Will

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