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23 Minutes that Changed the World

Tony Tyler, IATA's Director General & CEO

By Tony Tyler, IATA's Director General and CEO

This year marks the start of the 100th year of commercial aviation, which began on 1 January 1914 when Tony Jannus piloted the first recorded commercial airline flight, carrying a single passenger (a 100% load factor) on the 23-minute air journey between Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida.

This historic event, occurring more than a decade after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, has been all but forgotten outside of the aviation community. Yet it is difficult to exaggerate the impact it continues to have around the globe. This year, for the first time, the world’s airlines are expected to transport more than three billion passengers—equivalent to around 44% of the world’s population.

And they will do so safely. Commercial aviation has been improving safety for decades, a result of technological and operational advances combined with the enormous commitment of all involved in aviation to make safety the top priority. Although the 2012 data has not been finalized, it appears that the air transport industry has just had its best ever year in terms of safety. There were six Western-built jet (WBJ) hull losses in 2012. That is down from 11 in 2011 and 17 the year before.

The performance of the 240 IATA airlines was more remarkable still: our members experienced no WBJ hull losses at all. Furthermore, there were no WBJ hull losses among airlines on the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) registry—more than 140 of which are not IATA members.

Taking a wide angle view, it is clear that in a little more than one lifetime aviation has transformed itself from a high-risk activity fit only for barnstormers and daredevils into a routine part of modern life. There simply is no equivalent in other modes of long distance transport for this rapid transformation. Consider that approximately 20 months before Jannus took to the sky, more than 1,500 people perished in the sinking of the RMS Titanic—which had been advertised as the most modern and safest ship in the world.

Of course, thanks to the airplane, few people travel long distances by ship today—sea travel is a leisure pursuit, not a driver of global trade and commerce. The inevitability of this outcome was portended on that January day in 1914, when, with Jannus at the controls, the Benoit XIV flying boat cut hours off the trip between Tampa and St. Petersburg, previously accessible only by slow steamer or even slower road or rail journey.

Tony Jannus did not live to see commercial aviation change the world. He died in a training accident a few years after the St. Petersburg Tampa Airboat Line heralded the approaching revolution. As we begin the final countdown to the 100th anniversary of the birth of the airline industry, there is no better way to honor his legacy than by continuing to make safety our highest priority.

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