The city of St. Petersburg, Florida is often overlooked in the history of aviation, even as it hosted the first airline in the world in 1914. More recently, the city was the founding home of National Airlines in 1934. The brainchild of George T. Baker, the airline began operations from the city’s waterfront Albert Whitted Airport. Initial operations involved transporting people and mail to select cities in the state using the Ryan ST monoplanes.
The operation grew quickly, transporting 249,799 passenger miles in 1936, and quickly expanded across the southeast United States. By the end of the 1930s, the company relocated its headquarters from quiet St. Petersburg across the state to Jacksonville, with National airplanes crossing the south from New Orleans down the peninsula to Miami.
The 1940s saw the company continue to grow. The airline was awarded the rights for flights from New York to Florida, with the rights to cities to stop in between. The beginning of the decade saw the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar became the workhorse for the airline.
In 1946, National gained the rights to serve Havana, Cuba. Fleetwise, the airline began to diversify. First came the Douglas DC-4 in 1946, which allowed nonstop flights between Miami and New York. Next was the pressurized Douglas DC-6 a year later, which cut the flight time up and down the coast by an hour.
At the end of decade, the airline moved its headquarters and main hub down the east coast of Florida to Miami. This would remain the home of National Airlines till the airline’s demise. In 1958, National became the first airline in the United States to operate jet aircraft domestically.
Using leased Boeing 707 aircraft, the airline introduced the aircraft on their flagship route between New York and Miami. The airline continued to gradually grow and by the end of the decade, the airline stretched from Houston to Boston.
In 1961, National expanded to the west coast, with service from Florida to California. West coast expansion continued into the 1960’s with service to San Diego, Las Vegas, and San Francisco introduced. Flights were operated mostly by the Lockheed L-188 Electra, and often made stops on the cross-country flights. The airline began a partnership with Pan Am to provide passengers interchange service to South and Central America.
Flights were operated mostly by the Lockheed L-188 Electra, and often made stops on the cross-country flights. The airline began a partnership with Pan Am to provide passengers interchange service to South and Central America.
The 1960s saw the introduction of newer more modern jets. Medium-haul travel saw the use of the Douglas DC-8, while short-haul operations focused on the new Boeing 727. By 1968, National became an all-jet airline when the last Electra was retired. The turn of the decade saw the introduction of a computer reservation system created by IBM. The airline also was awarded flights between Miami and London, becoming the third carrier to plow the transatlantic market.
In October of 1970, National introduced the Boeing 747, the largest aircraft operated by the airline. National decided to deploy the aircraft on flagship routes between Miami and New York and Miami and Los Angeles.
At New York’s JFK Airport, the airline opened their own terminal, the Sundrome. At the time, New York was the airline’s second biggest station, behind Miami. The airline continued expansion into Europe with routes to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Zurich, and Paris. However, the airline wasn’t without its troubles.
Controversy arose over a marketing campaign involving the airline’s flight attendants. The campaign was criticized for being sexist against women, and featured flight attendants with the slogan “I’m (name), Fly Me”. As a result of disputes with the flight attendants, the airline had to halt operations for several months in 1975 when the flight attendants went on strike.
With the airline at a weak point, it quickly became a target for several takeovers. Texas International was the first airline to attempt a takeover, acquiring a 25 percent stake in the airline. However, the airline failed to complete a full takeover. Eastern Airlines was similarly futile in their attempt of a takeover. Pan American then took over Texas International shares, and slowly acquired a majority of the airline.
On Jan. 7, 1980, Pan Am completed the takeover of National. The takeover gave Pan Am crucial access to the domestic market, something that had been denied to them under the Civil Aeronautics Board.
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