12/23/1940: The US’ First All-Cargo Service

12/23/1940: The US’ First All-Cargo Service

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

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 (TW), and Eastern (EA) – 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. Several airlines, including UA and TWA, started independent air freight services by the war’s end.

UA Douglas DC-4. Photo: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Public domain, via Wikimedia 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 AA, 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 C-46 “Flying Tigers” pilot 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 transported freight from coast to coast. Unlike Slick, Prescott has ensured that it diversified into 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.

Flying Tiger Line C-54. Photo: Bill LarkinsCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

FedEx: ‘Next-day’ Delivery

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

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 freight delivery. 

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.

With a lot of financial help, Smith 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 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.

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Featured Image: FedEx is the largest cargo airline in the world. Photo: Luca Flores/Airways.

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