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.
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.
Below, a photo of an Imperial Airways lounge.
Back in the mid-1920s Imperial Airways would show some of the first in-flight movies. But it was less the in-flight entertainment and more the cozy accommodations that would be advertised as most indulgent during the 1930s. After all, the powered aircraft of Imperial were competing with the much smoother and quieter (albeit sometimes more flammable) dirigibles of the interwar period.
Air travel may have looked luxurious in the photos of the 1930s — and it no doubt was in many ways—but it was still an incredibly grueling way to get from Point A to Point B. Or, more appropriately, Point A to Point Z, with every stop in between.
Thanks to new planes, the expansion of air routes throughout the British Empire would happen relatively quickly in the early 1930s. By early 1932 there was service to Cape Town, South Africa. By the summer of 1933, Imperial Airways flights were reaching Calcutta, India. And by 1934 there was regular service to Australia.
The map above shows how Imperial passengers in 1934 could get from London to Singapore at a cost of £180 (about £10,900 or $17,600 when adjusted for inflation). What a deal! Especially since the hotel accommodations, food, and nearly everything but the alcohol was included in the price. But what a headache.
The 8,458 mile trek took 8 days and according to historian Lucy Budd, included stops in Paris, Brindisi, Athens, Alexandria, Cairo, Gaza, Baghdad, Basra, Kuwait, Bahrain, Sharjah, Gwadar, Karachi, Jodhpur, Delhi, Cawnpore, Allabad, Calcutta, Akgats, Rangoon, Bangkok and Alor Star.
That's exhausting enough to read, much less to experience. But it was still the fastest way to get from London to Singapore in the 1930s, even accounting for the fairly common occurrence of emergency landings.
Eight days of travel was practically light speed, but the airlines would try to play up the sense of adventure while also trying to assure passengers that their every need would be met. This was quite a balancing act that would continue until Jet Set luxury (no unpleasantness necessary) became the futuristic dream after World War II.
Cairo became a major hub for air traffic in the 1930s. According to Lucy Budd in a 2007 paper, the city was the jumping off point from Imperial Airways' routes to the rest of the world, whether it was South Africa, southeast Asia, or Australia:
Owing to its geographical location, Cairo became one of the busiest airports in the world, and all Imperial Airways aircraft, whether destined for Europe, Africa, or Asia, converged on the Egyptian capital.
The 8,000 mile air route from Cairo to Cape Town fulfilled a British dream that had been envisioned in the late 19th century. As Robert L. McCormack explains in his 1976 paper on the history of air travel in Africa, the first flights to South Africa were an important step (as psychological as it was physical) in asserting the strength of the empire.
At last, after more than a decade of frustrated hopes, Imperial Airways, the 'chosen instrument' of British air imperialism, was linking Cairo to Cape Town, the twin citadels of British power and presence in Africa. Much of Africa would now be days rather than weeks away from London while Cecil Rhodes' old dream of a 'Cape to Cairo' connection had become a reality.
The 1938 map above comes from Peter J. Rimmer's 2005 paper on the history of Australian air travel. In it, we see the incredible reach that Imperial had attained by the end of the 1930s. Again, that harrowing flight (or rather, series of flights) from London to Brisbane may have taken 11 days at best. But compare that with over a month by ship (42 days via the SS Stratnaver, for example), and it was really hard to complain.
Imperial Airways appealed to the consumer who desired the most luxurious way to travel. But it wasn't always very pleasant, despite the most advanced technology of the time. People would often get sick, and bowls were discreetly placed under the seats to ensure that passengers had a place to throw up. The widespread pressurization of cabins wouldn't occur until the 1950s, so altitude sickness often meant that people needed to receive oxygen.
The temperature inside the cabin was also a major consideration, since horror stories of incredibly cold flights were common in the late 1920s.
In 1939, Imperial Airways hoped to assure passengers that such discomforts were well in the past: "There is no need to wrap yourself up. All aeroplanes are heated and air-conditioned... and there is no need to worry about noise, for the walls are insulated, allowing conversation to be carried on in a normal voice."
Below the rather roomy sleeping accommodations for passengers on Imperial Airways international flights.
By 1938, Imperial Airways had a network of about 25,000 miles touching nearly every corner of Britain's vast empire. And as Gordon Pirie notes in his 2004 paper about British air travel, by the start of World War II, empire routes on Imperial Airways (as opposed to internal air routes) accounted for 90 percent of its miles.
With the onset of World War II, flying the rich and famous around the world was no longer fitting with the country's mission. Imperial merged with British Airways in 1939 to create the British Overseas Airway Corporation. Needless to say, their largest concern was now the war effort.
In many ways, Imperial Airways and its routes around the world in the 1930s were the last gasps of a dying empire; a unique mission during a unique time of pleasure and strife. But Imperial did indeed make the world feel that much smaller—that much further into the future. For better and for worse.
Sources: The Growth of Aviation in Britain by Peter Fearon (1985); On being aeromobile: airline passengers and the affective experiences of flight by L. Budd (2007); Passenger traffic in the 1930s on British imperial air routes: refinement and revision by Gordon Pirie (2004); The Formative Years of the British Aircraft Industry, 1913-1924 by Peter Fearon (1969); Global Networks Before Globalisation: Imperial Airways and the Development of Long-Haul Air Routes by L. Budd (2007); Britain's Internal Airways: The Pioneer Stage of the 1930's by Derek H. Aldcroft (1964); The Air Route to Cape Town 1918-32 by Robert L. McCormack (1974); Airlines and Empires: Great Britain and the "Scramble for Africa," 1919-1939 by Robert McCormack (1976); Australia Through the Prism of Qantas: Distance Makes a Comeback by Peter J. Rimmer (2005); Struggle for Prominence: Clashing Dutch and British Interests on the Colonial Air Routes, 1918-42 by Marc L. J. Dierikx (1991).
Images: All black and white photographs via Getty Images; Ad for Imperial Airways in the November 4, 1937 issue of Flight magazine; Ad for Imperial Airways in the December 2, 1937 issue of Flight magazine; Color cutaway illustration via Vintag.es; Color air travel map of London to Singapore by Michael Hession; Air schedule via Flickr; Imperial travel posters via the Smithsonian