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Santos-Dumont 14 bis

The first officially recognized heavier-than-air flight in Europe took place in October 1906, when Alberto Santos-Dumont flew his 14-bis plane.

Salmson 2A2

The Salmson 2A2 was one of the planes that the Franco-Roumaine airline used in the 1920s.

Air France poster

Air France was formed in August 1933 after a merger between Air Orient, Societe Generale Transport Aerien and Air Union Internationale de Navigation.

The Beginnings of French Commercial Aviation

French achievements in commercial aviation were built on a rich legacy of aeronautics research dating back to the 18th century with the Montgolfier brothers. France was one of the most active pioneers in heavier-than-air flight in Europe. Alberto Santos-Dumont, a resourceful Brazilian living in Paris, performed the first heavier-than-air flight on the continent in October 1906. Pioneers such as Henri Farman, Louis Blériot, and Robert Esnault-Pelterie followed in his footsteps. In 1910, Henri Fabre designed, built, and flew the first seaplane over Berre Lake near Marseilles.

Commercial aviation in France was not a serious prospect until after World War I. Because of widespread damage to railroads all over Europe, air travel offered a convenient alternative means of transportation. The cross-channel route from London to Paris also offered a tempting opportunity for enterprising entrepreneurs. Near the end of the war, on February 8, 1919, a group of French businessmen had remodeled the Farman Company's twin-engine Goliath biplane and began flying routes across the English Channel between Paris and London. By August 1919, Farman was offering daily service on this route for as many as 14 passengers. To attract passengers, the interior of the fuselage was arranged much like a railway coach. The early burgeoning private services, however, proved not to be financially viable because of high operating costs, high fares, and low passenger turnout. French commercial aviation, like aviation in Britain and Germany, would not have survived without strong support from the government.

The French government took an active role in fostering a domestic commercial aviation industry. French officials believed that aviation would be an important part of the country's economic growth. They also believed that a strong air presence would extend French political and diplomatic influence to the new postwar world. An important figure in this regard was Pierre-Etienne Flandin, the Assistant Secretary of State for Aeronautics from January 1920 to February 1921 who vigorously pushed for a French commercial aviation sector by using the government to support struggling companies. Already, with state support, the French were operating several passenger air services by late 1919 (including Grands Express Aeriene, Messageries Aériennes, Farman, Latécoère, Aero-Navale, the Franco-American Society, the Franco-Roumaine Company, and others). Several of these airlines had routes across the English Channel, thus putting them in competition with British airlines of the period that also served the London-Paris route. Passenger comfort was not high on many of these services. As one aviation official noted in a report from 1922, “In some airplanes, the passenger cannot stand conditions for more than two hours.”

One of the most important airline companies of the period was Franco-Roumaine, the eighth airline service formed in France. The company was created as a joint project between Romania and France on April 23, 1920. It inaugurated its first regular route in September with a daily Paris-Strasbourg flight, transporting both passengers and cargo. By the end of the year, the company had 31 airplanes, mostly using Salmson 2A2 and the Potez 7 aircraft. Enduring growing financial troubles, Franco-Roumaine had the honor of opening up the world's very first transcontinental air route when it began flying regular flights between Paris to Constantinople in Turkey. Despite stiff competition from German airline carriers, Franco-Roumaine remained one of the most important European passenger carriers through the 1920s, both in terms of numbers of passengers carried and the size of its network route. In 1925, it reorganized its business and changed its name to CIDNA (Compagnie Internationale de Navigation Aérienne). It was then composed of a 50 percent French share with the rest divided between Czechoslovakia, Romania, and other nations. Through the next decade, its service planes consisted of Caudron C 61s, Caudron 92s, Spad 56s, Farman-Jabirus, Potez 32s, Fokker F VIIs, and Fokker VIIbs aircraft.

Like several other European nations, French commercial aviation of the 1920s and 1930s depended heavily on colonial aviation routes to the far corners of the empire. French companies slowly began to expand routes beyond Europe across the Mediterranean to Algeria, the French Sahara, French Equatorial Guinea, and Madagascar.

At the height of the French commercial air travel boom, there were as many as 20 companies vying for a place in the sky. But by 1932, only five of these remained in existence, partly because the French government had encouraged mergers. These companies were Air Union, Lignes Farman, Air Orient, Cie Generale Aeropostale, and CIDNA. At the same time, without government support, none of the these companies could have sustained their operations. By 1932, an astonishing 80 percent of all funding for French commercial aviation came from the government.

After much discussion about the merits of competition versus having a single national company, the French government, in December 1932, decided to recommend that the five existing French airlines merge into one company. Thus, on May 31, 1933, CIDNA, Air Orient, Air Union, and SGTA formed an air service named SGELA (Société General pour l'Exploitation des Lignes Aériennes). Within months, after repurchasing the remaining Aeropostale company, the French created a mixed concessionary public service company named Air France on August 30, 1933. The first era of French commercial aviation was over and a new era had arrived.

—Asif Siddiqi


Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard. Aviation: An Historical Survey From Its Origins to the End of World War II. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970.

Heppenheimer, T. A. Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995.

Leary, William M. From Airships to Airbus: The History of Civil and Commercial Aviation: Volume 1: Infrastructure and Environment. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Trimble, William F. From Airships to Airbus: The History of Civil and Commercial Aviation: Volume 2: Pioneers and Operations. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

On-Line References:

Langley Research Center, “Commercial Aviation in France.” http://naca.larc.nasa.gov/reports/1922/naca-tm-157/

Airline History Website. http://www.airline-history.co.uk/

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