For holidays and business, air travel has become so common that we no longer give it much thought. If anyone (or anything) needs to get across the country, across the continent, or across the world at speed, then using an airline is the best way to travel. Last year alone, the localised version of our word (British Airways) transported over 39.6 million people across the UK, and their London cargo hub (operated through IAG Cargo) can process over 800,000 tonnes per year.
Naturally, the word airline, coming from the combination or “air” and “line,” doesn’t have Roman, Old French, or Anglo-Saxon origins; however, it may be surprising to discover that the word’s commonly understood meaning has changed through the years. The word itself came into being in a rather odd fashion: its first use was in 1813, in a speech given by Josiah Quincy III from the 1st District of Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives. Initially, the word was meant to represent a straight line between two specific points on the Earth’s surface, or, as we would say, “as the crow flies.” Despite being almost a century before the first recorded flight, this was considered a very modern concept, due to the fact that, to date, any means of travel – including railways – required dealing with obstacles in the landscape, such as hills, valleys, rocky terrain, waterways, etc.
From an obscure concept without a rational solution, we have certainly come quite a long way in the past two centuries. Considering that, prior to the 1960’s, flying to your holiday destination was almost unheard of, budget carrier Ryanair recently reported a year-over-year increase in passenger numbers of 14% (June 2014 to June 2015), to 9.5 million, which is almost larger than the entire population of England and Wales when the word was first used! Globally, air travel demand continues to outpace supply- by 6.5% in May alone- demonstrating that more people view air travel as the primary, if not only, option for reaching a destination. Aside from just passengers, a substantial percentage of airline traffic comes from time-sensitive cargo. Stalwart emerging markets in Asia dominate 40% of the overall traffic, while up-and-comers from the Middle East grow monthly by double-digits.
It was Josiah Quincy III, mentioned above, who stated in a speech in 1813: “They will not rigidly observe any air-lines or water-lines in enforcing the necessary levies,” but his use of the word airline was still rather different from our understanding of the word. Though still a few years from actual flight, an 1890 publication of The English Mechanic and World of Science imagines a rudimentary form of air transport services using balloons attached to wires, discussing how an item was, “Leaving for Quito, by the direct air line, last August.” A mere two decades later and almost seven years after the successful Wright brothers flight, we can see, in the 27th of July edition of The New York Times, a line that begins, “They will take the matter up with the airline company,” demonstrating the first usage of the word as we are familiar with it.