These days, living in a big city, it's a complete non-event to look up into the sky and see a plane passing overhead. It happens several times every day. Therefore it's quite amazing to thing that at the start of last century, the idea of flight was still completely impossible.

When was the first regular airline service which passed low enough over urban areas, so that someone could walk into their back yard and see a plane passing overhead at regular intervals?

Wikipedia mentions the St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line but this hardly fits what I'm looking for, as it rarely reached a height of more than 1.5m above sea level and therefore certainly didn't fly over anyone's heads.

  • This question is a bit contradictory. Discounting zeppelins, the first airlines were anything but regular. They flew infrequently, and they weren't safe. Airlines were already in existence for several years by the time people could see a plane passing overhead at regular intervals. Feb 10, 2016 at 20:21
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    The first time people in western Europe were able to see planes pass overhead on a regular basis was between July, 1914 and November, 1918. Those overflights weren't done by airlines. Feb 10, 2016 at 21:02
  • The first regular European services were London-Paris c. 1919, but from Hendon (in the west of London) to Le Bourget (north of Paris), so probably would not have overflown either city proper. Feb 10, 2016 at 21:31
  • Why is the question constrained to airplanes that flew low? Was there a period when airlines were flying high enough that people could not see them from their backyard?
    – MCW
    Feb 11, 2016 at 14:05

1 Answer 1


Zeppelin over Baden-Baden

It seems that DELAG, a German airline, launched the first Zeppelin passenger service from Baden-Baden in 1910.

PanAm Clipper over San Francisco

Interestingly, both Zeppelins and flying boats required minimal investment in land. Serving upper-class passengers in busy ports and cities, they created an exciting spectacle for the nearby crowds in these areas, making air travel both desirable and popular.

Ford Trimotor over city

This popularity, with the huge leaps in aircraft design and manufacturing during World War I, led to an explosion of passenger airlines during after the war: Three airlines in 1918, 12 in 1919, and 35 in 1920-1925. It was during this period that many city dwellers started seeing aircraft on a daily basis.

Ca. 1939 – View of Union Air Terminal on a rainy day with four DC3’s lined up near the terminal. Two cars are seen parked in the foreground.

With the rise of the middle class and growing automobile ownership, the financing and construction of airports near major cities got underway in the twenties and thirties. For example, Boston and Shanghai expanded military airfields for civilian use in 1923. Berlin Tempelhof was opened in 1927, Los Angeles LAX in 1929, London Heathrow from 1930-39, NYC LaGuardia in 1939, and NYC JFK in 1948. Airports were opened in Lagos, Rome, and Cairo around 1960.

Douglas DC-3, SE-CFP, operated by non-profit organisation "Flygande Veteraner" in Sweden

Until the mid-40's, unpressurized cabins limited the altitude of most passenger airplanes to about 8,000 feet. These piston-engined aircraft were plainly visible and audible to observers on the ground for the duration of their flights. Although jetliners started replacing them in the 50's many unpressurized propeller aircraft continued serving short-haul routes for another 50 years.

BOAC Comet in Entebbe, Uganda

Pressurized passenger cabins made high-altitude travel widely available with the arrival of the Lockheed Constellation in the mid-40's. By the 1950's, jetliners could cruise at high altitudes almost unseen and unheard from the ground. However, as suburbs blossomed around airports, observers could still see and hear all kinds of aircraft arriving and departing.

Near Boston's Logan Airport, an airplane comes in for a landing over homes on Neptune Road in May of 1973.

  • While the question does about airlines, it specifically asks about "planes" -- i.e., heavier than air flying machinery. Feb 10, 2016 at 20:17
  • @DavidHammen Thanks for you comment. I've expanded the answer to clarify the relationship.
    – rolfedh
    Feb 10, 2016 at 21:28

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