The United States airline system, one of the technological and business wonders of the twentieth century, evolved in the 1920s and 1930s. With early subsidies from the Post Office for carrying mail, airplanes began connecting US cities. With successive air mail laws and route contracts awarded by the Post Office, followed by the public’s increasing courage to fly, the major airlines were formed.
The “Big Four” were American, Eastern, TWA, and United, alongside international carrier Pan American World Airways. In this era, Pan Am was not allowed to carry passengers between US cities (until 1980), and the other airlines had limited if any international routes.
The next largest (but substantially smaller) carriers in 1950 were, in order, Northwest, Capital, Delta, National, Braniff, Western, Chicago & Southern, Mid-Continent, and Continental. Some of those airlines were later acquired by others, some went bankrupt, and a few emerged stronger, especially Delta.
The US domestic system was far bigger than that of any other country, given the big distances across the nation. For a quick history of these developments and the evolution of the airline industry, watch this video. (For the full story of American Airlines, and the great leader CR Smith who built it, see this article.)
We have created two new animated charts showing the evolution of the largest airlines over the last 70 years. We believe that these are the first such charts, covering such a long time period, available online. These charts are best viewed on a computer, or at least a tablet, in order to see all the details they contain.
The first chart shows the rank of the biggest airlines based on their annual passenger-miles, one of the two main ways airline sizes are ranked (the other being annual revenues). We compiled the data for every five years from 1950 through 2019. (We did not include data from 2020 since it was such an awful year for the industry, due to the Covid pandemic.)
This chart quickly (in a minute and a half) allows you to see when an airline “died,” either through bankruptcy or by being bought (and merged into) by another airline. Here is the chart:
You can also see that chart as a video with music at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inz7eGUef7Y.
(The parent company of American Airlines owns Envoy and other small carriers. If included, those would make American the largest in the chart, followed by Delta and United, which three would also be the largest in the world.)
Another way of looking at this history is to see the relative sizes of the airlines, using the same data, but showing how big each one was (in passenger-miles), every five years. This chart gives you a better idea of the relative size of the airlines than the first chart. In this slower-moving chart (four minutes), you can also see how much the overall US airline industry grew, from a tiny start, over these almost-70 years. Here is the second chart:
You can also see that chart as a video with music at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcPX03SDyl4.
We hope you enjoy watching these visual stories as much as we enjoy compiling the data and creating the charts!
American Business History Center
PS We continue to support the History Channel Series The Food That Built America, most recently appearing in an excellent episode about the rivalry between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.
The $6.3 trillion US retailing industry has evolved continuously since the end of the Civil War, when the first chain grocery stores and first department stores began to develop. This chart, based on data from the US Census, shows how the different types of retail stores have fared over the last three decades:
We suggest you watch the animated chart a few times and keep your eyes on one category to see how it has performed. If you go to the chart on our data and charts section of the website, you can pause the chart, then move the little arrow on the timeline at the bottom to go to any selected year.
One of the most important shifts, one that has been going on for at least one hundred years, is the rise of the restaurant industry. In 2019, for the first time in history, the restaurant industry approximately tied the grocery store industry in total revenues. COVID set that trend back, but we anticipate it will continue in future decades.
Remember that warehouse clubs and supercenters also sell large quantities of groceries, so the two industries are not quite tied just yet. This is offset somewhat by the non-food (general merchandise) products sold by some supermarket chains.
General merchandise stores are a very big category if you put them all together. For the purposes of this chart, and to illustrate an important shift, we have broken them out into Department Stores (Macy’s, Sears, Penney’s, Kohl’s, etc.); discount stores (without a significant grocery department, a Kmart or an old Walmart), other general merchandise stores (including Dollar General), and the big one that rose up during the time frame in the chart: warehouse clubs and supercenters.
Walmart opened its first true supercenter, with a full line grocery store, in 1988, just before the chart begins. The warehouse club idea began in the 1970s with the Price Club in California, later copied by Sam’s Club (Walmart). Today Walmart is the world’s largest company of any type, the first one to ever generate over $500 billion in sales in one year. Over half of their US business is in groceries. Combined with Costco (successor to Price Club) and other warehouse clubs and supercenters, these formats have changed the way Americans shop.
As has “electronic shopping and mail-order,” which you can also see rising throughout the period in the chart. In 2020, this segment was twenty-five times as big as it was in 1992, the year before Sears shuttered its massive catalog operation and two years before Amazon was founded.
Amazon is now America’s second largest company, about 70% as big as Walmart based on annual sales in 2020. We expect that gap to close fairly quickly.
If you study the chart, you will notice several other trends, including the huge size of the automobile and gasoline station businesses, the latter being the most volatile retail category due to oil price swings.
We hope you enjoy our occasional charts and pass them along to anyone who might be interested!
American Business History Center
We at the American Business History Center are delighted to announce that we will soon make our first appearance on national television!
Last year, the producers of the History Channel series “The Food that Built America” approached us for research on several stories they were developing for their second season, after their first season was watched over 18 million times. This season begins this Sunday, Valentine’s Day February 14, at 9 PM Eastern time on the History Channel.
Before agreeing to participate, we watched several episodes from their first season and assured ourselves that the producers were doing a good job on the stories, telling them accurately.
We have been very disheartened by the lack of filmed entertainment, for big screen or small screen, that accurately tells the stories, the human drama, of entrepreneurship and business. It was very refreshing to find well-produced, historically accurate programming with outstanding re-enactments and solid expert commentary.
We were impressed with what we saw and proceeded to film several sessions with them last fall. The people we worked with were dedicated to getting the story straight. They did not take liberties with the facts in order to create drama, as so many producers do.
Each program is set up as a business battle. The first episode focuses on the fight between the Carney brothers’ Pizza Hut and the upstart Tom Monaghan’s Domino’s. The second episode is about chocolate, including the stories of Reese’s and Hershey.
I will appear in four of the estimated fifteen episodes this season, covering Coke, Pepsi, canning giants HJ Heinz and Campbell Soup, and a cheese battle between Kraft Foods and the Pabst Brewing Company. We do not know when these episodes will air.
We have no idea how much I will appear or whether I come across well but are eager to find out. If the producers follow our request, the American Business History Center will get credit for my appearance.
In any case, this is a nice step forward for the American Business History Center as we approach our second anniversary in May. Our newsletter is attracting new subscribers and website pageviews have grown by 500% over the past year. So our young organization is off to a nice start.
We urge you to tune in to this television series and tell your friends and relatives about it. It should air every Sunday evening for many weeks. Each amazing story tells shows the drama behind brands that have become household names. The series is one of the best things we have ever watched that shows what it takes to succeed in business and the amount of fortitude and imagination required of successful entrepreneurs.