United Airlines Celebrates 96 Years In The Skies

Wednesday marks United Airlines’ 96th birthday, with the airline first flying on April 6, 1926. United traces its origins back to Varney Air Lines and a mail run between Pasco and Boise. Varney was one of the founding airlines that segued into United Airlines. Since then, United has come a long way. United’s 860 odd planes now fly to 376 destinations in 70 countries.

United Airlines marks a mail run 96 years ago

As my Grandma said, once you turn 90, every birthday is a win. Ninety-six isn’t the big deal that turning 100 is, but it’s a very respectable innings. That first flight, 96 years ago, is a long way from United Airlines’ modern-day flights. A bloke called Leon Cuddeback flew 207 pounds (94 kilograms) of mail in a Curtiss-powered Laird Swallow biplane between Pasco and Boise and onwards to Elko, Nevada. That biplane scooted along at a top speed of 90 miles (140 kilometers) per hour.

In 1930, United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (UATC) bought Varney Airlines. UATC itself was a product of a merger between William Boeing’s Boeing Air Transport and Pratt & Whitney. Along with Varney, UATC snapped up Pacific Air Transport, Stout Air Services, and National Air Transport in short succession. In 1931, UATC formed a company called United Airlines Holdings and transferred its various airlines to that company. Wade your way through those various trailblazer airlines, and Varney Air Lines is the oldest.

United Airlines First Flight Pasco Varney Air Lines

A photo of that first Varney Air Line mail run on April 6, 1926. Photo: City of Pasco Government

Of course, there’s an argument that says airlines should only mark anniversaries of flying under the one brand name – ask any British Airways fanboy about this, and they’ll get all hot and bothered under the collar. On the other hand, you’ve got those hardline KLM purists who’d sniff at United’s 96th birthday because their airline has operated continuously since 1919 using the same name.

But let’s not get picky here. Even if you said United didn’t start properly until 1931, it’s still a remarkable run, especially considering the consolidations, mergers, and bankruptcies that have littered the US airline landscape since. United Airlines has made it through the tail end of the depression, World War II, deregulation, the GFC, and, more recently, COVID-19.

A series of (mostly good) firsts from United Airlines

Along the way, some giants of the airline world have fallen by the wayside – US-based examples including Pan Am, TWA, Continental, and NorthWest. United also lays claim to a number of firsts, including been the launch customer for the Boeing 777 and the first US customer for the Dreamliner. United’s other gift to the world was starting the first inflight kitchen in 1936. Mass-produced inflight catering has since proved a mixed blessing, not that that’s necessarily United’s fault, but you could say United started a trend that has gone largely in the wrong direction since some undefined date in the 1970s.

United also claims to be the first airline to fly to all 50 US states, although it no longer does so. Given United’s extensive coverage across the US, it leads to the question – where doesn’t it fly to? Perhaps our readers could tell us.

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