Published Date

December 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 17: How Free Are the Skyways? (1945)

For a number of reasons air commerce did not come into its own before the war.

In the first place there was the technological hazard. Men still had a long way to go in overcoming the problems of weather and of mechanical imperfection in planes and motors.

In the second place an economic hazard stood in the way. Despite its speed, air travel always failed in the past to attract enough passengers and freight to make wide-scale operation profitable. The airlines grew as a result of state subsidies. Pan American World Airways (formerly Pan American Airways), the great international line which has its headquarters in the United States, got its impetus from Post Office Department subsidies for carrying air mail.

In the third place a political hazard has postponed the arrival of the air age.

The first hazard faded to all but a memory during the war as intercontinental flying became an everyday reality. It is possible that enough peacetime air traffic will now develop to erase the second. But the third one continues to loom as the greatest barrier that must be brought down before Tennyson’s prophecy can come true.


Does anybody own the air?

A few years ago a song writer told us: “The skies belong to everyone.” But he didn’t know his international politics.

As a matter of fact, each country claims exclusive control or “sovereignty” over sky above its territory. If you could hang boundary markers in the clouds, you would find that the upper air is cut up into as many political divisions as the face of the earth itself.

In that fact lies one of the problems of the future of international flying. Every country has been insisting on the right to decide whose planes may fly over its territory. At the same time almost every country has a plan for establishing commercial airline routes through the air above some other country.

Will all nations hold to these contradictory aims of expanding their own use of the air while restricting the use other nations can make of it? If they do, the result might be either the establishment of even higher walls that would cut off aerial intercourse between all countries or an outburst of conflict that would obtain air advantages for only a few of the nations of the world.

Can the nations reach a common understanding that will free the air from most of the political barriers? What sort of understanding would make possible the maximum use of aviation knowledge and equipment developed during and before the rear?

What is our stake?

The future of air commerce involves questions that profoundly affect the foreign affairs of the United States. Rich in planes and aviation engineering skill, America can look forward to an era of intercontinental flying that will put South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia just around the corner from the forty-eight states.

The settlement of international air problems can help bind the various countries of the world more closely together—politically as well as commercially. Or the settlement can keep the world divided. Let us see how international aviation has progressed in the past and examine the schemes put forward to improve its prospects for the future.

The international air pioneers

The history of international commercial aviation falls neatly into two periods: (1) the pioneer era before World War II, and (2) the wartime era of great expansion.

International aviation began with the commercial conquest of a modest distance, the 200 miles between London and Paris. The line was opened in the summer of 1919, shortly after World War I gave to aviation its first great impetus. The journey took two hours, but it saved the passengers the agony of crossing the stomach-tossing Straits of Dover via surface ship.

From 1919 to 1939 was the pioneering age in international flying. Airlines expanded to a total of more than 300,000 route miles. The North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Pacific oceans were spanned. Networks were laid over Europe, North America, South America. Europe was linked with the Far East and Australia. A number of routes were opened in Africa, no more the secluded Dark Continent.

Airmen complain, however, that those advances of the pioneer era were but a small portion of what might have been done had the nations of the world understood the great importance of the airplane. The world seemed to fear the plane more than appreciate it. Two fears especially held the commercial airplane on a leash during the international pioneering age.

The plane as an instrument of aggression

The strongest fear was military, the fear that foreign airlines might use their planes for aggression. This fear has made governments hesitant to let planes fly into the air they control. It led the French government a few years before the war to propose a limitation on the size of planes operating internationally.

“The military aspect of aviation cannot fundamentally be separated from the civil aspect,” a report of the British government said in 1938. For the most part, civil planes are not easily converted to combat uses, any more than a superliner becomes a battleship easily; conversely the military planes used in World War II have little peacetime commercial worth.

Nevertheless, international commercial flying does give pilots practice in long-distance operation that is usable in flying bombers and troop transport planes or in instructing others how to fly them. International flying makes possible the mapping of foreign areas that might later become bomb targets or paratroop objectives.

Development of international routes and production of the planes needed to fly them can lay the foundation for an industry devoted to the manufacture of large planes—civilian planes in peace, combat planes in war. Germany consistently took advantage of its international commercial flying for politico-military purposes.

The economic fear

The second strangling fear was economic, growing out of the fact that planes have been able in the past to attract only a small percentage of the persons and freight in motion from one point on the earth’s surface to another.

This fear has led some countries to impose restrictions on the regularly scheduled planes of other countries lest a few nations obtain a lion’s share of the total business. And it has led some countries to exploit their geographical locations by exacting a price—often a stiff one—for allowing the planes of other nations to fly over their territory.

Next section: How Serious Are the Obstacles to Freedom?