Air Transport World

Air France 70th anniversary: 70 years of innovation, elegance and style. (Special Section).

By next year, Air France, one of the world's pioneering carriers, will return to its roots as a mostly private-sector enterprise if the French government follows through with plans to reduce its stake in the company to a minority position. But for much of its history, Air France has been more than a state owned carrier--it has been an instrument of government policy. Its mission has been not just to bring in revenue but to serve the larger needs of France's society and economy, from maintaining a lifeline to far-flung French colonies to providing jobs at home. In the course of meeting these needs, it became one of the world's largest and best-known aviation entities.

Air France emerged as a corporate identity with its current name in 1933, about the same time that the US airline industry became embroiled in the "airmail scandal"--noncompetitive postal contract awards that established United, Eastern, American and TWA as the premier US carriers. Like many early airlines, Air France was created as an amalgamation of smaller companies. In its case, those predecessor lines date back to the dawn of aviation history and include many colorful and romantic characters such as Saint-Exupery, Guillaumet and Mermoz and numerous pioneering efforts.

While most Americans think of aviation as mainly a US development, France's involvement in flight was just as deep--deeper, in fact, if you count lighter-than-air experiments. The Montgolfier brothers used hot air in the 18th century to become the first humans to commune with the birds. Three years before the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903, Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian studying in France, wowed Parisians by flying a small dirigible around the Eiffel Tower. He also made Europe's first powered heavier-than-air flight in Paris in 1906. And it was in France that the Wrights proved to the world their superiority in flight technology, a very short-lived superiority in the face of French developments accomplished at a furious pace.

The oldest air transport company in France, and the earliest corporate ancestor of Air France, was Compagnie Generale Transaerienne founded in 1909, which Air France's archives note "mainly operated dirigibles and seaplanes." The passenger air travel business didn't really start until after World War I as seven fledgling airline companies were created between 1918 and 1920.

One of those was Les Lignes Latecoere, established in 1918 as a mail carrier by aviation pioneer Pierre-Georges Latecoere, an airplane designer, builder and pilot who started by manufacturing military airplanes for France. …

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