MIAMI – Today in Aviation, United Airlines (UA) launched its own air freight service in 1940. With the service, shortly before the beginning of the WWII, the airline inaugurated what some historians say was the first all-cargo operation in US airline history.

A Douglas DC-4 aircraft were used by the airline to transport mail from New York to Chicago and back. The route was short-lived and ended five months later. Air freight remained on the sidelines of mail and passenger traffic until March 14, 1941, when the “Big Four” airlines—UA, American Airlines (AA), TWA, and Eastern—formed Air Cargo, Inc., to transport freight.

Air Cargo started operations in December 1941 and operated during much of the war. Its last scheduled flight was in November 1944. By the end of the war, several airlines, including UA and TWA, started their own independent air freight services.

The RB-1 Conestoga used by Flying Tiger Line was a twin-engine, stainless steel cargo aircraft designed for the United States Navy during World War II by the Budd Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Wiki Commons

Post-war US Freight Service

The two air cargo operators that survived wartime were Slick Airways, founded by Earl F. Slick in January 1946, and Flying Tiger. When service began, Slick operated a fleet of 10 Curtiss C-46E aircraft.

By the end of the 1940s, the company had become the country’s most successful air freight operator. While Slick enjoyed moderate growth, it also faced challenges. Proven passenger carriers, such as American Airlines, had launched all-freight flights that deliver tough competition.

Flying Tiger Line was much better off. The airline was established on June 25, 1945, by Robert Prescott, a Pilot of the C-46 “Flying Tigers” during the war. Prescott began with a fleet of 14 Budd RB-1 Conestoga aircraft, a bizarre-looking wafer-thin, stainless steel aircraft that did not have very good flying characteristics.

Beginning in August 1945, Prescott’s Pilots were transporting freight from coast to coast. Unlike Slick, Prescott has made sure that it diversified into both military and civilian markets. The business has survived competition with existing passenger airlines partly because of its diversified customers and partly because of favorable CAB decisions.

A Federal Express McDonnell Douglas MD-11 in 1995. Photo: Wiki Commons

FedEx: ‘Next-day’ Delivery

In 1965, Frederick W. Smith, an undergraduate at Yale University, wrote a term paper that discussed  the technological difficulties faced by leading companies in the information technology industry. Most airfreight shippers relied on passenger route systems, but they didn’t make economic sense for emergency shipments, Smith wrote.

The soon-to-be young entrepreneur understood that mixing passenger air traffic with freight air traffic, as existing airlines did, was not the most effective way to do business. He assumed that the patterns of the two routes were entirely different. He also argued that the combination of freight and passenger transport delayed the delivery of freight.

Smith proposed a system specifically designed to handle time-sensitive shipments, such as medicine, computer parts and electronics. Smith’s professor evidently did not see the groundbreaking ramifications of his work, and the paper earned just the average score.

Smith, with a lot of financial help, built a hub in Memphis, Tennessee, for his exclusive air freight operation, which he called Federal Express. One of the most important points of sale was his vision of next-day delivery, a service that he guaranteed. The company started operations in April 1973.

In 1989, Federal Express purchased Tiger International, Inc., the owner of Flying Tigers. The two airlines were combined in August 1989. As a result, Federal Express became the world’s largest full-service all-cargo airline. In 1994, the organization formally changed the name of its operating division to FedEx.

Time-sensitive Cargo and the Global Supply Change

United Airlines-Cargo was named Best Air Cargo Carrier-North America at the 2020 Asian Freight, Logistics and Supply Chain (AFLAS) Awards ceremony held in Hong Kong on November 9, 2020. UA’s legacy and Smith’s innovations have made time-sensitive freight shipment a necessity; specially now, as cargo operations surge in response to calls to move essential supplies to tackle the COVID pandemic. 

With the pharmaceutical industry moving more than a trillion dollars worth of freight each year, ensuring the quality of the shipment requires specialized equipment, storage facilities, harmonized handling procedures and, above all, close cooperation between the cold chain partners on a global scale.

As air cargo operators deliver medical goods, including the new COVID-19 vaccines, around the world, we are reminded of the critical role they have played in world affairs ever since the first US all-cargo service was inaugurated 80 years ago.

Featured image: United Douglas DC-4. Photo: Wiki Commons. Article source:,