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Book Review: "A History of the World's Airlines" by R.E.G. Davis


To start, before discussing this book, A History of the World's Airlines by R.E.G Davis, it has to be mentioned that its publication date was in 1964. For the aviation industry, this makes it ancient, medieval truly. I picked up this book because I saw it on the shelf at my university's library, but really, if one wanted to learn about airlines, no matter how good this volume might be, one would be better off going elsewhere, to a more modern book.

A History of the World's Airlines is focused upon a chronological, and regional, history of airline development. Its chapters devote themselves to individual regions - such as Europe, or North America, the two principal areas, but it also includes many others - and developments of individual airlines there throughout a decade. It includes as well towards the end of the book various chapters devoted towards general developments, such as the impact of the introduction of jets, speculation about helicopters and supersonic transports, and statistical developments.

On a macro level, there is little that this book doesn't cover. It can hardly be accused of euro or American-centrism, because it travels to every inhabited continent, and frankly I would be surprised if there was an early aviation air route not covered by it. It also does an admirable job of listing aircraft found on these lines, with tables - including pull-out tables - which cover the number of aircraft, their type, their production country, and what companies used them, at various periods throughout time. The total passengers flown by airlines is not neglected either: the book is certainly not benefit of graphs and tables, dedicated to total passengers flown by airlines, relative share, the amount of airliners used by various airlines, and maps of air routes. The sheer amount of information is really quite staggering, and deeply impressive: I really have no clue how the author managed to accumulate so much on so many regions over such a period of time.

I have criticisms of the book, legitimate ones I feel, but I gotta say that any book with a 5-page pull-out chart table has got to have something going for it. Literally amazing the amount of statistical detail.

I have criticisms of the book, legitimate ones I feel, but I gotta say that any book with a 5-page pull-out chart table has got to have something going for it. Literally amazing the amount of statistical detail.

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But unfortunately, the book really is of little help for understanding the finer details airlines and their development. A catalogue of airoutes is something it provides extremely well. It accompanies this with a dusting of statistics which are displayed intermittently, and sometimes a small amount of technical information relevant to the period (although to be fair, the amount of information picks up hugely once the Jet Age arrives). But this is insufficient. There is almost nothing in the way of hard information about the economics of the airlines (except again, a few scattered examples in the Jet age), nor about their competition with regular services, nor their type of passenger and broader influence. Occasionally there is a flash of interest in such regards - for example, the book relates how the Washington-New York route was initially discarded for postal mail, because business mail was sent out in the evening and had arrived the next day by train, so the minor speed advantage of 1920s airlines had little advantage, while in contrast on a cross-continental route the 33 hours and 20 minutes of aircraft compared to a 4-day long surface transport on trains was useful - but it is rare and fleeting. Simply listing routes doesn't actually give very much information about why airlines developed in such a way, and how they did and how they did not present viable competitors to ground traffic. Or how airlines were created initially : who backed the funding for them? How did they procure their capital? Were they expensive undertakings, or relatively modest in their costs? What was reliability, safety, and profitability (again, this improves somewhat during the Jet age - it is mentioned that early air lines were unprofitable, but by how much and when did the cross-over to real profitability begin) like? How did links develop with aircraft production for the airlines? There is a brief note about how American airlines tended to depend on one manufacturer, and how the open pool of aircraft buying revolutionized them, but what about elsewhere? Management organization and style : were they "modern" joint-stock companies, or private firms based upon a single individual? These vital questions are mostly neglected, and if they ever appear, they are only for specific airlines, which makes it hard to form a useful general understanding. For the expert meanwhile, the lack of a bibliography or other compilation of the sources used by the author makes it difficult to dig deeper.

What can be drawn from the book? This depends very much about what your intent is in reading it, and one's period. As a general catalogue of airline history, it does a splendid job, and while I haven't read any other books on the same subject, I can't imagine one with more details about airlines. It also provides a great deal of information about the Jet age, and aircraft purchases and various general factors impinging on airlines (although many of the above critiques still remain). By contrast, if one's focus is on it to learn about the inner workings of airlines and their corporate management, it probably won't be very useful. Instead of looking it as a history book, it might be best to view it as a historiography project, what was thought important in the 1960s (this includes its discussion of supersonic transport aircraft, which it thought were probably futile, and its conversely oddly optimistic view of helicopter airlines). The focus is upon the firsts of aviation and the implementation of flight routes, which reveals what was the focuses then existent. It does so in an explicitly national-minded, rather than corporate, manner. To an extent, this was probably inevitable, because any book on aviation written more than half a century ago is going to be superseded by time. Given the constraints of the time for the author - the lack of the huge available internet sources that we have, less accessible archives and more language difficulties, I'm frankly amazed that he managed to get so much information compiled. But while the book is an excellent one for dealing with air routes, and within the US it does occasionally deal with the process of airline consolidation and policies related to that, for most of the world it doesn't give a deeper grasp of airlines. If one's interest is in this categorization of air routes, one will be well served, but otherwise the book will only very occasionally delights. I imagine historians of airlines will find this book to be exceedingly useful, since it covers with such depth so many aircraft lines, but for those interested in the broader nature of transportation and businesses, it won't be as much of a boon. Writing this is hard, because as I've tried to convey the book has such an incredible amount of information that it feels churlish to critique it, especially given what time period it is from, but I don't feel it is very useful for understanding airline structures despite all of this. Airlines are after all, more than just the routes their aircraft fly and the aircraft they flew on them.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 18, 2017:

I think this book would still prove interesting for aviation enthusiasts out there. Looking back at how the airlines were in those days would be interesting, I would imagine. Aeroplanes and aviation in general has come on leaps and bounds over the years.

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