AIRMAIL CREATES AN INDUSTRY:
Building the Foundation
Postmaster General Hitchcock continued to
advocate for experimental airmail service. He allowed local
postmasters to arrange for service-approved airmail deliveries
during meets and fairs. Mail was authorized for airplane
flights in several cities over the next few years, including
St. Louis, Missouri, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Marietta,
Ohio. On November 2, 1911, the postmaster in Ft. Smith,
Arkansas, oversaw the delivery of the first airmail in his
city. On March 14, 1912, mail flew by air in New Orleans,
Louisiana for the first time. The strategy worked to a degree.
Americans, already excited about the aviation, were intrigued
by airplanes carrying mail. But airmail remained a curiosity,
a stunt more useful to philatelists than the general public.
With the change of administration in 1913,
Albert Burleson replaced Hitchcock as postmaster general.
Burleson signaled that his interest in airmail service was
limited to its economic viability. In 1918, Burleson asked
Congress for $50,000 to set up an experimental airmail service.
He also appointed an old friend, Otto Praeger, as his Second
Assistant Postmaster General. Praeger's duties were
expanded to include the supervision of what would become
the Air Mail Service. Unlike Burleson, Praeger's enthusiasm
for the promise of airmail was boundless.
July 1916, the Post Office Department finally received it's
$50,000 for airmail service. But when the service, following
it's tradition, asked for bidders to apply (the announced
routes for bidding were in Alaska and Massachusetts), only
one bidder came forward. Clearly another way had to be determined
to make airmail service a reality.
The matter was dropped as U.S. aviation efforts
focused on the growing conflict in Europe. The Army Air
Service, readying for conflict, used civilian and army instructors
to teach flying to its growing number of pilots. The JN-4
"Jenny", purchased from Curtiss Aeroairplane and
Motor Company, became the most commonly used training airplane.
The Curtiss company was already producing thousands of aircraft
for the war, having obtained a $15 million contract for
the British government in 1915.
Before the war was over, army officials agreed
to fly Air Mail Service for the Post Office Department,
knowing that the work would provide critical training flights
for their pilots. The service was transferred to the postal
service three months after it began. The Post Office Department
ran the U.S. Air Mail Service for eight years while commercial
aviation companies began to organize.
During the years it ran the service, the department
lost money. Between 1918 and 1925, the postal service spent
$17 million to operate a service that returned only one
third of its investment. No private company of the period
could have withstood the losses needed to organize, manage
and broaden the scope of national airmail service at that
When the service was contracted out to civilian
companies, the financial security of postal contracts kept
them alive and provided badly needed capital for the creation
of more reliable aircraft. Not until the dominance of the
DC-3 aircraft in the late 1930s were airline companies finally
able to make more money through passenger service than through
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