May 15, 2018, Marks 100th Anniversary of U.S. Airmail Service’s First Flight

100 years ago today, on May 15, 1918, the first U.S. airmail service flight traveled from New York to Washington, D.C., in what became a new way to transport mail aside from steamboats and railroads, and ultimately changed how people and businesses received their mail in the United States. ALPA’s founders and early members had a long history with airmail service, with many of them flying as airmail carriers. In 1931, Capt. Dave Behncke, ALPA’s first president, set out to advocate to protect and enhance the working conditions of line pilots. 

A History of the U.S. Airmail Service and the Airmail Act of 1934

Editor’s note: An article in the June 2016 issue of Air Line Pilot offered the following timeline of events: 

  • In 1933, Sen. Hugo Black (D-AL) launched an investigation accusing aviation holding companies of colluding with the previous postmaster general to allocate airmail routes, rather than awarding them through competitive bidding. During this time, the airline industry’s pioneering pilots mostly delivered the mail.  
  • On Feb. 9, 1934, the Roosevelt administration announced that it would cancel all existing airmail contracts within 10 days, opting instead to have the Army Air Corps transport the mail. The political backlash was immediate. Although the decision was detrimental to airlines, resulting in the temporary loss of flying, Behncke opted to support Roosevelt, gambling that he would reward ALPA for its support. Not surprisingly, the transfer of airmail duties to the Army proved disastrous. Army pilots had not been trained for the kinds of weather conditions they faced, and their aircraft lacked the navigational equipment available on newer civilian airplanes. 
  •  On June 12, 1934, Roosevelt signed the Air Mail Act of 1934, restoring airmail delivery to the private sector with a new set of rules. The law set routes, schedules, and fixed payment rates for airlines, and authorized the Commerce secretary to specify the speed, load capacity, and safety features of the aircraft to be used. More importantly, ALPA’s lobbying efforts compelled Roosevelt to press Congress to include language introduced by the National Labor Board known as “Decision 83.” The bill detailed a federally guaranteed minimum wage for pilots and limited pilot monthly flight time to 85 hours. This law set a significant precedent and provided important groundwork for ALPA to build upon in becoming the largest airline pilot union in the world. 

The scheduled nature of flying the mail gave rise to routine passenger carriage and the need for greater safety. The pilots banded together to form the first labor union of aviators—the Air Line Pilots Association. Adopting the slogan “Schedule with Safety,” ALPA pilots continue to actively advocate for air safety and security improvements today.