Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History

Post Published November 2, 2023

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Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of HistoryStill Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Longevity Through Innovation

In an industry known for rapid change, short-lived startups, and constantly shifting business models, how have certain airlines managed to stay flying for over 100 years? A big part of their secret sauce is innovation.

The early pioneers of aviation were true trailblazers. Companies like KLM, Avianca, Qantas, and Aeroflot were founded by visionaries who saw the potential for air travel to transform the world. In those early barnstorming days, flying was a seat-of-your-pants enterprise. But these airlines had the guts and moxie to push boundaries and make commercial air travel viable.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth skies in those early years. There were countless crashes and setbacks. But the airlines that survived learned to roll with the turbulence and keep innovating. When passenger volumes slumped after World War I, KLM switched to carrying more airmail and freight. During the 1930s Great Depression, Qantas expanded from biplanes into larger multi-engine planes that could handle longer routes to Asia.

As the decades passed, long-lived airlines like Lufthansa, Delta, and United evolved from props to jets. They developed computerized reservation systems. They launched loyalty programs to retain customers. And they led the way in adopting new aircraft types like the game-changing Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
In recent years, innovation has taken on a digital dimension. Airlines like Qantas and KLM are leveraging technology to improve customer service and streamline operations. From mobile apps that allow self-service check-in to AI chatbots that can rebook disrupted travelers, these century-old airlines are using cutting-edge tools to enhance the passenger experience.
At the same time, many of these airlines honor their history and heritage. Flying on Aeroflot you’ll still be served a traditional Russian meal. KLM maintains its historical affiliation with Dutch royal family. And Qantas celebrates its beginnings in Australia’s rugged Outback.

What else is in this post?

  1. Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Longevity Through Innovation
  2. Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Surviving World Wars and Economic Turmoil
  3. Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - From Propellers to Jet Engines: Evolving with the Times
  4. Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Combining Tradition and Technology
  5. Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Expanding Their Global Reach Over the Decades
  6. Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Focused on Passenger Comfort and Convenience
  7. Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Adapting Their Services to Meet Changing Demands
  8. Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - The Legacy Continues: Preparing for Another 100 Years

Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Surviving World Wars and Economic Turmoil

While innovation has fueled longevity for many airlines, external forces have also threatened their survival over the past century. Surviving two world wars and various economic downturns has required resilience, quick pivots, and financial discipline.
Both World War I and II led to slashed passenger demand as military needs dominated. Airlines like KLM played an important role ferrying troops and supplies, while also evacuating civilians from war zones. These wartime responsibilities kept revenues flowing and primed airlines for the return of commercial demand when peace resumed.

The periods between the World Wars brought their own challenges. The 1930s Great Depression crushed consumer spending, while massive government debts limited public investment. Airlines were forced to get scrappy and diversify revenue streams. Qantas carried more mail, while also pioneering long-haul “luxury liners” to Asia. KLM focused on Indonesia and Central/South America.
Post-WWII, Cold War tensions saw some airlines like Aeroflot become more closely aligned with their governments. But former wartime foes Lufthansa and JAL both recovered to link up as partners in the 1950s. And Juan Trippe’s visionary leadership saw Pan Am dominate international routes across the free world.

The 1970s brought new headwinds from high fuel prices and inflation. Most airlines were Caught flat-footed by the 1979 oil crisis. But Delta’s far-sighted fuel hedging insulated them from the worst impacts.

Deregulation opened US domestic skies to new competition in 1978. Some venerable names like Eastern and Braniff collapsed, while others like Continental and Northwest modernized and thrived. Overseas flag carriers felt pressure too, as governments demanded efficiency in exchange for support.

The 90s saw many airlines struggle amidst recessionary impacts from the Gulf War, 9/11 attacks, SARS epidemic, and 2008 financial crisis. But survivors embraced change, adopting new thinking like dynamic pricing that aligned fares to demand. Partnerships and alliances also grew, leveraging synergies across airlines.
While airline bankruptcies are not uncommon, a zero-failure mindset and maniacal focus on costs enabled airlines like Delta, United, Qantas, and Lufthansa to survive tough times. Their long-term perspective balanced short-term profits and smart investments to sustain quality and service.

Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - From Propellers to Jet Engines: Evolving with the Times

The history of commercial aviation closely mirrors the evolution of aircraft technology itself. While that may seem obvious, it’s easy to forget just how transformational breakthroughs like the jet engine have been. Early airlines literally put their faith in propeller planes, never imagining a day without propellers. Yet within a few decades, the jet age had arrived and piston engines were history.

For airlines that have endured over a century, evolving with the times was an imperative. When new technologies arrived, the most forward-thinking airlines adopted them early. There were risks in being first movers, but the rewards were game-changing operational efficiencies and competitive advantages.
Pan Am spearheaded the shift to jets in 1958 with the Boeing 707. High costs nearly sunk Pan Am, but Juan Trippe saw the jet’s potential to dominate long haul international routes. Lower operating expenses and higher speeds played to the 707’s strengths. Within a decade, Pan Am was the world's largest international airline.

Closer to home, Delta Air Lines sprang for the Douglas DC-8 jet. With smoother rides and fewer stops, passengers flocked to the jet experience. Delta’s big bet paid off handsomely, cementing its position as the major Southern US carrier.

Across the pond, BOAC (later British Airways) operated the game-changing De Havilland Comet in 1952 before structural flaws forced its grounding. Undaunted, BOAC rolled out the revolutionary Vickers VC10 in 1964. With a short-field design perfect for African routes, the VC10 epitomized BOAC’s vision of jet travel for all.

Government-owned flag carriers faced more complex choices. Prestige and politics vied with commercial needs in aircraft selection. Some carriers chose indigenous aircraft like the Soviet Tu-104 and Canadian Avro Jetliner. Others opted for early American jets including the 707 and DC-8.

The 1960s saw economic jets like the 727, DC-9, BAC One-Eleven, and Boeing 737. Airlines replicated jet service on shorter domestic routes. Window curtains and complimentary meals preserved a sense of gentility in the jet age.

By the 1970s, the widebody era was dawning. Pan Am’s 747 got the jump on rival jumbos like the DC-10 and L-1011 TriStar. Airlines grappled with questions of aircraft size, engines, and range as they planned globally.

Deregulation in 1978 shook up US airlines, but robust 727 and DC-9 fleets enabled scrappy new entrants like Southwest. Internationally, Airbus emerged as Boeing’s first real competitor with models like the A300.

Through it all, airlines had to maintain mixed fleets during the uneasy transition between prop and jet. Retraining staff was a monumental undertaking. Adding new maintenance capabilities tested resources. But those that managed the change prospered.
Of course, the story continues today. New engine designs allow remarkable fuel efficiencies. Boeing's 787 and Airbus’ A350 exemplify ongoing innovation. And looking forward, new fuels, materials, and propulsion systems promise a sustainable future for aviation.

Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Combining Tradition and Technology

For airlines with over a century under their wings, honoring tradition while embracing innovation is a delicate balancing act. How do you preserve brand identity and appeal to customer loyalty, while also staying ahead of the curve with new technologies and service offerings? It’s a predicament every established company faces sooner or later.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has found smart ways to fuse its heritage with cutting-edge advances. Founded in 1919, KLM retains close ties with the Netherlands’ royal family nearly a century later. Its iconic royal blue livery and trademark porcelain houses are a nod to Dutch history. At the same time, KLM’s fleet reliability utilizes predictive maintenance algorithms to maximize aircraft availability. And the airline’s Amsterdam hub deploys automated baggage systems and self-service technologies to enhance efficiency.
Avianca Airlines connects its modern operations with longstanding Latin roots. Founded in 1919, the airline is recognized as one of the world’s oldest continuously running carriers. Onboard, travelers can still expect a traditional Latin meal service, showcasing regional cuisine and hospitality. But behind the scenes, Avianca utilizes customized data analytics to tailor fare offerings and optimize revenues.

Down under, Qantas takes pride in its Australian heritage while embracing next-gen advances. On its Sydney-London marathon—the longest route in the world—Qantas flies fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliners equipped with wellness features to minimize jet lag. But it also serves up Aussie favorites like meat pies and wines from its birthplace. Qantas also honors its Outback beginnings at its unprecedented Canberra terminal, with displays celebrating the forgotten trailblazers and adventurers who built Australian aviation.
For U.S. legacy carrier Delta, tradition means commitment to service tenured employees provide. One flight attendant has even achieved the incredible milestone of 80 years working for Delta. The airline is also upgrading its aircraft interiors and service tools, with designs influenced by flight attendant input. Hot towel service makes a comeback, and new drink carts allow custom orders. Yet behind the scenes, Delta utilizes predictive analytics to forecast passenger loads, optimize its hub efficiency, and allow greater autonomy for frontline staff to resolve issues.
Across Europe, Lufthansa and Air France pay homage to their storied pasts through service touches. You can rely on a printed menu, cloth napkin, and wine pairing on Lufthansa. Air France decorates select cabins with a retro 1940s flair. But both airlines utilize digital tools to personalize and customize the passenger experience. AI-supported chatbots help Lufthansa passengers self-serve as needed. And Air France offers a robust mobile app with features from digital luggage tags to airport navigation tools.

Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Expanding Their Global Reach Over the Decades

For airlines that have endured over 100 years, expanding their global reach has been essential to survival and growth. In the early decades of air travel, range was limited so pioneering airlines focused regionally. But as technology advanced, leading carriers stretched their wings to fly farther and tap new markets.

KLM provides an illustrative example. For its first decade, KLM only operated short hops around Europe. But in the 1930s, it expanded east to serve Indonesia and Thailand. Post-WWII, KLM exploited the new Lockheed Constellation’s longer range to offer service across the Atlantic. Non-stop flights from Amsterdam to New York took off by 1946, establishing KLM as a global player.
Over in Australia, Qantas evolved from humble Outback air taxi roots to ranking among the world’s most experienced long-haul airlines. Qantas burst onto the world stage in 1935 with the first commercial service across the Indian Ocean to Singapore. Later that year came an even more audacious London-Australia route, taking 12 1/2 days and covering 12,754 miles.

Qantas’ flying kangaroo symbol gained fame as its reach expanded across Oceania and Asia. Innovative pressurized Lockheed Constellations opened trans-Pacific routes to North America in 1954. By 1958, Qantas operated round-the-world service over the Pacific, traveling westbound from Australia through Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and back home across the Pacific.
For U.S. airlines, early postwar growth centered more on domestic expansion. But Pan Am aggressively pursued global reach under Juan Trippe’s bold leadership. Pan Am pioneered expansion to Latin America, the Pacific, and circled the globe in 1947. The arrival of long range jets cemented its dominance on prestigious transatlantic and Asia routes.

Trippe imbued Pan Am with a sense of romance and adventure that mirrored the exotic destinations on its route map. Pan Am beckoned travelers with the promise of experiencing cultures and places beyond dreams. As other airlines later encroached on its turf, Pan Am remained the quintessential U.S. global carrier.
Government-owned airlines like Air India, El Al, and Aeroflot also expanded their reach during this period for economic and geopolitical motives. And by the 1970s, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific established Asian aviation players through commitment to service excellence and efficient hubs.

Deregulation unlocked expansion opportunities for U.S. airlines in the 1980s. Freed from route constraints, carriers like United, American, Delta and Northwest pushed internationally at pace. Liberalized “open skies” pacts opened access to new cities across Europe and Asia. Domestic stalwarts became powerhouse global airlines almost overnight.
Overseas, traditional state-owned flag carriers also spread their wings through privatization and globalization. Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, and British Airways leveraged partnerships and alliances to extend their networks. Aggressive Gulf airlines like Emirates and Qatar exploited jets like the 777 and A380 to funnel global traffic through their desert hubs.

Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Focused on Passenger Comfort and Convenience

For airlines celebrating over a century of operations, a keen focus on passenger comfort and convenience has been paramount. While aircraft technology has radically transformed, human needs remain remarkably consistent. We all crave creature comforts, attentive service, and experiences personalized to our tastes. Savvy airlines recognize this and go the extra mile to indulge and delight travelers.
Dutch carrier KLM smartly designed its latest Boeing 787 Dreamliners with passenger wellbeing foremost in mind. KLM worked closely with famed Dutch designer Hella Jongerius to create an interior that feels more like a relaxing living room than sterile airliner. Soothing blue hues provide a calming ambiance. Custom lampshades emit a welcoming glow. And seats recapture the romance of early aviation days with tufted leather, while also offering ergonomic adjustments and massage functions.

Down under, Qantas flies direct from Perth to London - a 17 hour marathon. To counter the dreaded jet lag such distances bring, Qantas infuses wellness into its onboard product. In-flight meals feature healthy superfoods and lean proteins to keep you energized. The lighting scheme follows circadian rhythms to lull you to sleep and gently wake you. Guided stretching encourages movement and circulation. Qantas also offers self-care videos and tips to arriving refreshed and ready in London.
Avianca brings Latin warmth to its passenger experience through genuine hospitality. On regional flights within Colombia, Avianca enhances convenience with onboard agents who personally deliver refreshments from the galley. Travelers feel welcomed by name and pampered with attentive service. It resembles the care of a family road trip, evoking Avianca's nearly 90 years of connecting compatriots across Latin America.

Delta's longstanding reputation for gracious service still shines today. On overnight flights, Delta provides Westin Heavenly In-Bed comforters and pillows to its BusinessElite passengers. Settling in with cozy bedding makes trying to nap or sleep less stressful. Delta also offers noise-cancelling LSTN headphones on international routes to enhance inflight entertainment. With audiophile sound quality, passengers can savor playlists, podcasts, and movies without engine drone.

Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - Adapting Their Services to Meet Changing Demands

In an industry as dynamic as aviation, adapting services to meet changing demands is an absolute must for longevity. Customer expectations, competitive pressures, disasters, pandemics - the curveballs never stop coming. Savvy airlines continually evolve their offerings to attract and retain flyers.
Take Singapore Airlines, which famously pampers passengers with its luxe service ethos. But when low-cost upstarts like Singapore's Tiger Air began luring budget-minded travelers, Singapore Airlines responded with Scoot, its own discount subsidiary. Scoot offers no-frills amenities and operates routes with thinner demand. This smart segmented approach lets Singapore Airlines compete across multiple customer segments.
Over its 100+ years, Avianca Airlines has adapted to continual political and economic volatility in Latin America. Through coups, nationalizations, currency swings and more, Avianca modified networks and services to match realities. Recently, Avianca trimmed unprofitable routes and aircraft to slashing costs. New fare brands now appeal to discriminating travelers versus penny-pinchers. Agility and flexibility have been Avianca's secret sauce.
In the US market, Southwest Airlines built an empire with short, no-frills hops. But when leisure flyers' tastes shifted toward nonstop routes, Southwest pivoted to offer more long-haul flying. Southwest's flexible, fun-loving ethos prepared it well for changes. Signature perks like two free checked bags and no change fees breed loyalty across customer generations.

When COVID-19 paralyzed travel, Korean Air adeptly modified operations to ride out the storm. With grounded passenger fleet, Korean converted Boeing 777 and A380 planes to transport cargo. This stabilized revenue flows until travel rebounded. Korean also enhanced ventilation systems and intensive cabin cleaning to reassure customers when flying resumed.
Across Europe, airlines adapted merchandising and ancillary revenues to grow profits. Creative fare bundles provide more choices beyond just economy and business. Prepaid meals, checked bags, premium seats and other addons generate billions in extra revenues. KLM even lets you double-down to reserve an empty adjacent seat when booking.
The hallmark of tenacious airlines is sensing shifting winds and tacking decisively to stay ahead. Adapting with agility requires a culture accepting of change. Empowering employees to test new ideas prevents inertia. And understanding different generations of flyers allows calibration of service, technology and sustainability.

Still Flying High: 5 Airlines With Over a Century of History - The Legacy Continues: Preparing for Another 100 Years

While no airline can take the future for granted, many seasoned carriers are thoughtfully preparing for their next 100 years of flight. With long horizons in mind, investments aim to balance sustainability, efficiency, and staying ahead of consumer trends.

Lufthansa provides an inspiring case study. Currently observing its 65th anniversary, Lufthansa seems poised for many more milestones ahead. The German flag carrier recently unveiled a dramatic new brand identity and aircraft livery. The timeless crane logo endures, but Lufthansa’s fuselage adopts a sleek, forward-looking grey scheme. The message speaks volumes: this airline has its sights set firmly on the future.
Lufthansa also became the launch customer for Boeing’s 777X, an ultra-efficient twin engine widebody. With breakthrough aero design and next-gen GE9X engines, the 777X delivers double-digit improvements in fuel burn and emissions. Airlines like Lufthansa are thus doing their part to achieve environmental sustainability amidst growing societal concerns over aviation’s climate impacts.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines shows similar strategic foresight. As early as 2011, KLM began exploring alternative biofuels, cognizant that traditional kerosene would be insufficient in a carbon-constrained world. By adopting sustainable biofuels for select routes, KLM aims to reduce emissions substantially towards 2030 goals.

KLM is also re-imagining the passenger experience to meet Gen Z expectations. At Schiphol airport, KLM’s Blue Restaurant partnered with famed Dutch designer Rem Koolhaas to create a mindful, welcoming oasis. The eco-conscious eatery sources local and seasonal fare. Calm and natural materials like wood and gypsum soothe travelers. And an “infinity room” offers a contemplative backdrop to de-stress pre-flight. As emergent generations reshape travel, KLM is tuned in.
Over in Asia, Singapore Airlines already unveiled its new medium-range Airbus A350 in late 2022. But the airline also has the next-generation A350-1000ULR on order. This ultra-long range variant will boast unrivaled range capabilities to serve the world’s longest routes with efficiency. Given Singapore’s advantageous geography, these aircraft ensure it stays central to global air networks in decades ahead.

Perth-based Qantas has come to symbolize Australian aviation after a century of operation. As Qantas plans for its second century of service, major initiatives like “Project Sunrise” aim to push the envelope on long haul air travel. Ushering in an era of nonstop flights from Australia’s east coast to New York and London demands new aircraft capabilities that Qantas is proactively shaping.

The airline is also pioneering trials of ultra long haul pilot schedules to minimize fatigue. And investments in lounges, cabins and amenities onboard aim to enhance the customer experience. Qantas seems well-prepared for whatever its second century may hold.

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