Today we largely take international air travel for granted. Every major city in the world is little more than a hop, skip, and jump away. But what was it actually like to fly halfway around the world in the 1930s, when the very concept was still novel? Pretty incredible, as it turns out—provided you could afford it.
At the dawn of commercial air travel, Imperial Airways was Britain’s shuttle to the world. As the British Empire’s lone international airline in the 1920s and ’30s, Imperial was responsible for showing the rich and famous every corner of the Empire. And in doing so, their mission was to make the Empire (and by extension, the world) feel that much smaller.
They did it in style.
During the WWI, airplanes became a vital tool for victory, ushering in a brave new world of battle. Airplanes were the future of war, but they had yet to prove themselves as the future of peace.
After the war, Britain had a surplus of warplanes that would jumpstart its commercial air industry. But the early 1920s was a hard period for British aircraft companies. Unlike their counterparts in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United States, very little government investment in British air travel occurred during peacetime.
Instead, the government cobbled together the few struggling British air companies to form Imperial Airways, which was incorporated in 1924. Imperial was devised as a private, highly subsidized company that would operate with monopoly support from the British government. They shuttled mail and passengers to the farthest reaches of the globe.
Imperial’s planes of the 1920s (made of wood and fabric) would slowly morph into the planes of the 1930s (made of metal). But it wasn’t merely because the streamlined aircraft looked sleeker. The newer planes also better suited Imperial Airways’ mission of Empire maintenance.
Peter Fearon explains in his 1985 paper on the history of British aviation that the kind of materials being used were of particular interest to an Empire with an incredibly diverse array of climates.
Indeed, the Air Ministry encouraged manufacturers to move towards the use of metals in airframe manufacture not because of the advantages that could be gained from streamlining, but because, especially in tropical regions, metal was more durable than wood.
The switch from biplane (pictured above) to monoplane (pictured below) also made the experience feel more spacious and modern. Well-heeled travelers enjoyed feeling like they were a part of the future—a vital part of England’s push to tomorrow.
But it was perhaps speed that made the largest difference in the airplane’s evolution from the 1920s to the 1930s. As Derek H. Aldcroft notes his paper on British aircraft history, “…whereas for most of the 1920’s the average cruising speed was 100 m.p.h., or below, by the beginning of 1934 airliners attaining cruising speeds varying from 140 to 200 m.p.h. were available.” It was the kind of improvement that made international travel not just possible, but practical.
Flying in Style
Equal parts harrowing adventure and indulgent luxury, taking an international flight in the 1930s was quite an experience. But it was an experience that people who could afford it signed up for in droves.
Nearly 50,000 people would fly Imperial Airways from 1930 until 1939. But these passengers paid incredibly high prices to hop around the world. The longest flights could span over 12,000 miles and cost as much as $20,000 when adjusted for inflation.
A flight from London to Brisbane, Australia, for instance, (the longest route available in 1938) took 11 days and included over two dozen scheduled stops. Today, people can make that journey in just 22 hours, with a single layover in Hong Kong, and pay less than $2,000 for a round trip ticket.
Print advertising was an important part of Imperial Airways spreading its message that luxury and adventure were now available to the common man. And that this relatively new flying metal bird was safe enough for the entire family to sit inside.
The ads above ran in 1937 issues of Flight magazine. “By Air to South Africa or India in less than a week!” one ad boasted.
“All the way to India by Empire Flying-Boat,” another ad proclaimed.
Cutaway illustrations, like the one below that appeared in the January 21, 1937 issue of Flight magazine, would show prospective passengers just how spacious their accommodations could be.
The Armstrong Whitworth airplane shown above came in two different models: the European class (for shorter journeys) and the Empire class (for longer excursions). The European model could accommodate 32 passengers and included a steward’s pantry, and three lavatories. The Empire class airplane could accommodate just 20 passengers if it was to be flown at night, since that’s how many beds they had.
The Empire model also had three lavatories, though I haven’t been able to find any descriptions of what it was like to relieve oneself mid-air during this time. Given the extreme turbulence (planes would drop hundreds of feet in a matter of moments), I imagine it was something that was avoided if at all possible.