Published Date

December 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

When the wild geese who have spent the summer in northern Sweden get the autumn urge to fly south, they head for the Mediterranean and cross the boundaries of a number of countries without any permission from a mortal agency like a government bureau. Not so in prewar days with commercial airplanes carrying passengers, mails, and freight over regularly scheduled routes.

Before World War II, governments made some progress through the tedious business of reaching individual agreements with a large number of other countries. By trading off privileges and by making special financial arrangements, governments gradually got for regular commercial planes some of—but far from all—the freedom of the wild goose.

Except through this process of special negotiation—and sometimes in the process—nations have hesitated to grant foreign planes the privileges of flying over their territory, of landing to refuel or make repairs, or of landing to discharge or take on passengers and freight.

These privileges have lately been divided into five classes, so it may be easier to discuss the underlying issues in similar divisions.


Freedom of transit

The first is the matter of flying across the territory of other nations. This is the so-called “right of innocent passage.” If two states are separated by the territory of a third state, they cannot enjoy mutual air commerce unless their planes can fly over the intervening territory. Countries which lie across straight airline routes can thus use their position for great good or ill to international aerial transportation.

The greatest obstacle to freely granted privileges of transit through the air of one country by the planes of another has been the strategic consideration. Nations do not relish the idea of permitting the planes of other nations to fly unhindered and unquestioned over their territory. Rivalry among colonial powers has been another barrier. Until Great Britain, France, and Belgium reached agreement on lines to their African colonies, each stood in the others’ way. And the spirit of competition for aerial traffic has moved nations to bar transit over. their territory until they were ready to engage in the business themselves.

Operational stops

The second privilege is that of landing for nontraffic purposes, that is, to refuel, make repairs, seek haven from bad weather, and the like. This is important particularly for transocean hops. On these routes nations possessing islands that are essential for intercontinental flying are in the saddle. For instance, at the present time flights across the North Atlantic, to be profitable, must have access to land in Newfoundland, Iceland, Bermuda, or the Azores.

The United States, of course, has complete control of Pacific flying through possession of Hawaii, a key station on the middle Pacific route, and Alaska, the gateway from North America to Siberia. Before the war, the United States, with an eye to possible Japanese operations, declined to admit foreign planes either to Hawaii or the Philippines. That was the reason Australia, which wanted the right to fly a route via Hawaii to Canada, declined to let Pan American Airways extend its service from New Zealand to Australia.

International rivalries and fears slowed up the progress of European air routes to the Orient until hard bargains about bases were struck. Italy, for instance, agreed to let Imperial Airways (Britain) fly to Egypt by way of an Italian base only in return for British permission for an Italian line to fly to Iraq via Palestine, a British mandate. Turkey unrelentingly closed its air to commercial planes bound for the Orient.

Oceanic and land bases are still important even though the range of modern planes enables them to cross great bodies of water in one jump. A plane which has the privilege of crossing the Atlantic in two jumps, refueling at a way base, needs to carry less gasoline than does the one-hop plane. That means it can carry more paying passengers and freight.

Stopping to do business

Third is the privilege of landing to discharge passengers, mail, or cargo taken on in the country whose nationality the aircraft possesses, that is, under whose flag it flies.

The related privilege of taking on passengers, mail, or cargo destined for the country whose nationality the plane possesses is the fourth privilege.

Jealous bargaining over privileges three and four has slowed down the development of international routes. Governments have required that their airlines be given reciprocal privileges in a second country when the airlines of that country seek admission to the first country.

Sometimes country A not only has sought reciprocal privileges but has stipulated that country B cannot begin operations until country A is ready to run a competing route to country B. For instance, the United States had a reciprocal agreement with Britain respecting the crossing of the Atlantic. When Pan American Airways was ready to begin flights to Britain before the war, however, the British were not ready to begin flights to the United States and a special permit was needed to let Pan American start.

The twenty Latin-American countries, not being in a position to engage in competitive operations, generally have not demanded reciprocity, and airway development has progressed rapidly in them. Neither, of course, do the forty-eight states in our country demand reciprocal privileges of each other.

In 1932 American lines flew their transport planes an average of 87,500 miles each, while European lines flew theirs an average of 22,100 through the blocked skies of that continent. In 1942 American domestic airlines averaged 464,000 miles per plane.

Some persons credit this American advantage to the free sky lanes between the states. Others attribute it to the facts that Americans on the whole live on a higher economic level than Europeans and that commercial flying within the United States has been technologically superior to that within Europe. Perhaps it is just that distances are much greater.

Picking up business en route

The fifth and final-privilege is that of carrying passengers, mail, and cargo between intermediate countries on a route—neither country being that whose nationality the aircraft possesses. This is important for intercontinental flying. As long as this privilege is restricted, an aircraft flying outbound on a long route with stops in several countries must fly with a constantly growing number of empty seats.

“For example,” a State Department official says, “a plane from New York to Cairo via London, Paris, Geneva, and Rome would drop off at each city the passengers booked to that point and take on none, thus probably arriving at Cairo with perhaps two or three seats occupied. Between New York and Buenos Aires, for instance, only 15 percent of the traffic is through traffic, and therefore we should be able to operate only about one plane a week on that trade route. Such a restriction would strangle the lines of every country except those operated for political reasons with heavy government subsidies.”

The fifth privilege tends also to be restricted by the fact that most countries reserve to their own lines right to what is known as cabotage. This is the carrying of passengers or freight between two points within the territory of one country. As long as cabotage is reserved, a foreign airline coming from across the Atlantic to the interior of the United States, for instance, cannot pick up passengers in New York and take them on to Chicago. Some countries interpret cabotage to cover operations between a country and its colonies in other continents.

Prewar cooperation

In attempts to reduce the barriers to enjoyment of these five privileges, the nations have sought in the past to make international agreements that included many countries. The most important pacts were made at Paris in 1919—which the United States signed but never ratified—and at Havana in 1928 among the American Republics. Only the United States and ten other nations have ratified the latter.

The Paris and Havana conferences failed to establish any of the five privileges as an international reality. But they did provide a simplified basis by which individual countries could make air agreements with other individual countries. International cooperation in the air was extended as a result of the Paris convention.

Some governments made what are known as pooling arrangements—by which the lines of two countries split the profits and deficits from operating one route together. This scheme divided the economic risk.

France and Germany had a pooling arrangement for their services from Europe to South America. In the intricate network of lines within Europe pooling was common.

The prewar routes

Despite restrictions on its freedom of flight, the airplane forced its way around the world during the pioneering era.

Pan American Airways was the pioneer United States international line. It began operations in 1927 with a line from Miami to Havana that, among other things, exploited people’s thirst for a drink when the Prohibition Amendment was in force in the United States.

When war came on December 7, 1941, the United States was operating 98,000 route miles of international airways; this country’s route mileage was the world’s longest. Here are the 1938 airway mileages, international and domestic, of other leading aviation countries

The Soviet Union, 58,036 miles, almost entirely for domestic flight; France, 40,833; Germany, 32,720; United Kingdom, 29,064; Italy, 23,583; Australia, 21,748; the Netherlands, 16,055; Canada, 11,917; Belgium, 11,388; Mexico, 10,104; Brazil, 9,182; Japan, 8,694; Netherlands East Indies, 7,943; South Africa, 7,893; Colombia, 4,844; India, 4,122; Poland, 3,744; Argentina, 1,581.

Air commerce during the war

The second World War had a curious effect on international flying. The world’s air was rent in two, part of it controlled by the Axis, part by the United Nations. Antiaircraft barriers between the two parts were more formidable than any of the barriers that discouraged the development of flying between countries and continents before the war. Only combat planes or troop-carrying planes protected by combat planes traveled from one air region to the other.

Yet in each of the two divisions of the world, the air was freer than it ever had been in the past. Within them planes could move almost without hindrance from one section to another.

This change came from urgent necessity. The conduct of the war required that men and supplies be moved quickly over long distances. To meet their military requirements the United Nations developed one set of international routes, and the Axis developed another set—or rather two sets, because the region controlled by Germany and Italy was far removed from the region controlled by Japan.

Neutral airlines provided a wartime link between the air worlds of the United Nations and of Germany. Throughout the war, planes flew with variable regularity from Stockholm to Aberdeen and from Stockholm to Berlin.

Wartime mileage increases

The war brought a marked increase in the total mileage of international air routes. This happened even though the Germans had to give up their Oriental and transatlantic lines, the Italians were forced to abandon their European and intercontinental lines, the Netherlands suspended its route to the Orient, and the French lines gave up their South Atlantic crossing and their flights to the Far East.

In their place, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC, successor to both Imperial Airways and British Airways) developed an extensive transatlantic service. With the assistance of the Belgian Sabena lines, it increased the number of its African lines while maintaining operations to India. Its wartime routes totaled 70,000 miles. The Dutch KLM line opened a network of operations in the Caribbean Sea region, with a United States link at Miami. The French inaugurated special military lines in Africa.


Most extensive of all were the new routes operated by the United States, under the control of the Army and the Navy. The Naval Air Transport Service, created on December 12, 1941, had a network of 80,000 miles, and the Air Transport Command of the Army Air Forces, organized on May 29, 1941 as the Ferrying Command, operated more than 160,000 miles. ATC was the longest airline in the world. It kept pace as the front advanced farther into enemy territory. Within a month after the liberation of Paris, ATC planes included Paris on their schedules. Soon they were flying to Brussels. Within a month of its invasion, Leyte became an ATC port of call.

The speeds maintained, the distances covered, the trying terrain conquered, the foul weather outwitted, and the great variety of cargo carried by ATC and NATS altogether testify that man is winning the technological battle against the air.

But the question still remains whether the economic and political hazards can be overcome. ATC and NATS, as military lines, paid little heed to questions of financial efficiency. ATC ran the biggest hotel chain in the world. It dished out more meals a day than any other transport enterprise in history. NATS and ATC together carried about 45,000 passengers a month. Their pilots buzzed the back yard of Santa Claus and braved the rainy season thundershowers of the equator.

The accompanying maps reveal some of the NATS and ATC routings. In the operations of these wartime lines, perhaps, we see the shape of the future.

Next section: Can the Obstacles Be Removed?