From its inception, commercial aviation held promise for the transportation of freight and passengers. Unlike the railroads the federal government tried to consolidate and regulated in the 1920s, the aviation industry received the government’s encouragement to develop a national airway system. The need for a systemic infrastructure became apparent during early transcontinental air mail flights. Airfields, emergency landing strips at regular intervals, and beacons to guide pilots along established routes during nocturnal and inclement navigation all contributed to an infrastructural network spanning the nation. In these early days, navigation was largely visual and pilots often relied on railroad lines--easily visible from several thousand feet aloft-- to orient themselves or to locate urban centers. As a result, this early system of national air routes closely followed America’s dominant railroad lines.
This map is one of many from Atlas of Traffic Maps, a companion atlas to a 1930 Traffic Management course of study administered by LaSalle Extended University in Chicago, IL. At a time when national consolidation of shipping and transport routes seemed imminent, the atlas served as reference for students who studied the intricacies of moving freight efficiently through various transport systems. This airway map distinguishes between mail routes, passenger routes, express routes, and lighted routes, all factors essential for determining an optimal transport plan. Other maps in the atlas show ocean routes, inland waterways, highway routes, parcel post rate zones, and detailed railroad routes superimposed with freight rate conversion zones. Though railroads were undisputedly the most efficient way to transport goods and people in the 1920s and 1930s, the establishment of a national airway system opened the skies for an impending commercial air boom.
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“Airway Routes,” in Atlas of Traffic Maps (Chicago: LaSalle Extension University, 1930), pp. 36-37. The Newberry Library, folio RMcN atlas .A73 1930