Passenger flights with jet powered aircraft have been around for 67 years. There are just eight airlines in the world which can claim to have operated jets since the 1950s when it all began.
These are some of the biggest names in the industry today, which perhaps underlines the concept of first mover advantage. Join me as we have a look at the elite eight.
The world’s first passenger jet service was operated by British Overseas Airways Corporation or BOAC. Today, this airline is a well respected brand you may have heard of called British Airways.
On 2 May 1952 at 15:12, a de Havilland Comet 1 registered G-ALYP took off from London, en route to Johannesburg via Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone. There were 36 passengers on board for a journey lasting 23 hours and 40 minutes. Crews were changed in Beirut and Khartoum.
Services lasted just two years due to some issues with the aircraft, details of which are in a great video here. Purists may note that jet flights stopped, making it not count. However…
BOAC also inaugurated the first transatlantic jet flights with the upgraded de Havilland Comet 4. Flights between London and New York Idlewild commenced in both directions on 4 October 1958 and have continued ever since, cementing British Airways’ claim to the title.
The Europeans wasted no time, with Air France commencing services with their de Havilland Comet 1A’s on 26 August 1953 on their route from Paris to Beirut via Rome. Once again, they also fell foul of the problems with the first version of the Comet, ending services in 1954.
Like their English cousins, they also reentered the jet age later in the decade. Sud-Aviation Caravelle services began on 12 May 1959, flying from Paris to Istanbul via Rome. What is a Caravelle? Look no further and read about this gorgeous looking plane here.
Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union also moved quickly into jet passenger airliners. State airline Aeroflot introduced the Tupolev Tu-104 into service on 15 September 1956 on the route from Moscow to Irkutsk via Omsk.
As was the trend in the early days, engines were buried in the wings rather than slung under the wings in pods like they are today. While not particularly safe, the Tu-104 is worth remembering and there’s a video about it here.
American Airlines entered the jet age on 25 January 1959 with a transcontinental flight from Los Angeles to New York Idlewild. They used home grown equipment too, the venerable Boeing 707-123, which took 4 hours and 3 minutes to cross the country.
What was it like to go on that flight? Stewardess Argie Hoskins wrote, “Not only was the event impressive, but Flagship California was graceful, sleek, and absolutely gorgeous with open hospitality for all who entered her doors.” You can read her account of it on her blog right here.
Better known as SAS, Scandinavian Airlines entered the jet age with the French Sud Aviation Caravelle on 26 April 1959 between Copenhagen and Beirut. There is some confusion around this though. There are first flight covers available online, which show the first flight being from Copenhagen to Munich on 16 May 1959.
Well known aviation author R E G Davis states in a book that it was 15 May 1959 from Copenhagen to Cairo via Prague, Budapest, Istanbul and Damascus. Either way, there is no doubt that it was in April or May 1959, which means SAS makes the elite club.
Australia’s Qantas Empire Airways, which was renamed Qantas in 1967, is next in the ranks. Jet services commenced on 29 July 1959 from Sydney to San Francisco via Nadi and Honolulu. They also hold the claim of being the first non-American airline to order the Boeing 707.
Qantas are the only airline on this list which has never had a passenger fatality on jets since the 1950s. They are also the third airline to operate jets across the Atlantic, and once operated a glamorous multi-stop journey from Sydney to London which is worth remembering.
United and Delta Have Had Jets Since The 1950s Too
Rounding out the list are Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, in that order. Both started services with the Douglas DC-8 on 18 September 1959, with Delta beating United by about two hours. You can find out more about the DC-8 in the video here.
Delta operated New York Idlewild to Atlanta, while United went transcontinental from San Francisco to New York Idlewild. What is this Idlewild airport I keep mentioning? Today it is better known as John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, or just JFK.
While those are the airlines that still exist, there are airlines that are no longer with us. World renowned names like Pan American and TWA among others also helped usher in the jet age. Let’s also not forget the inventor of the jet engine, Frank Whittle from England. The first aircraft powered by the new technology was the Heinkel He 178 from Germany, which took to the sky on 27 August 1939.
Germany followed up with the world’s first operational jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262, entering service on 19 April 1944. The de Havilland Comet, the first passenger jet, took flight on 27 July 1949, closely followed by Canada’s Avro C102 Jetliner days later on 10 August 1949. Looking at the dates shows just how fast aviation technology progressed back in the early 20th century.
What do you think of the eight airlines that have operated jets since the 1950s? Have you flown on any of them? Perhaps you even flew on one of the original jets? Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.
Featured image by Captain Florent on Instagram.
BOAC Comet 1 image via Zoggavia.com and Air France Comet 1A via Pinterest.
Aeroflot Tu-104 by Michel Gilliand on Airliners.net via Wikimedia Commons.
American Airlines 707 by Jon Proctor on Jetphotos.net via Wikimedia Commons.
SAS Caravelle by Lars Söderström on Airliners.net via Wikimedia Commons.
Qantas Boeing 707 by Qantas via VH-JET#1 and Her Sisters.
Delta Douglas DC-8 by RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons.