France was passionate about the burgeoning world of aviation. In the excitement of the Roaring Twenties, the first airlines appeared. Pilots and passengers alike took part in the adventure.
The first airline
The story begins in 1909 with the creation of the Compagnie Générale Transaérienne, the very first French commercial airline company. On the agenda: trips on board dirigibles and seaplanes to Reims, Nice, Brussels, Lucerne, and more. French air travel had begun.
The landscape changed after the First World War. Airlines began to appear. In France, transport companies set off to conquer the skies. The Lignes Latécoère airline (which would later become Aéropostale) looked south, to Spain, Morocco, then Senegal and South America. CIDNA set a course east, to Prague, Warsaw, Moscow and Constantinople for the French-Romanian, the future CIDNA. Lignes Farman (which would later become Société Générale de Transport Aérien) focused on Western Europe: first Brussels, then Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin. Air Union (a merger between Messageries Aériennes and Grands Express Aérien) centred its network around the London-Paris route, Europe's main business route, with connections to Lyon, Marseilles, Geneva, Antibes, Ajaccio and Tunis. Air Orient looked to the far east, which linked Paris to Saigon in 1931.
Behind the pilots were equally adventurous passengers. Flying in aircraft that were often old converted bombers, passengers sat on wicker or rattan seats. The planes were cold and would shake and creak. The noise of the engines was deafening, so there was no chance of a conversation during the flight, and the cabin was often filled with the stench of castor oil. The clientèle were secretive: billionaires, ministers, artists. Just 7,000 passengers took to the skies in 1922.
Priority to mail
Airlines survived thanks to subsidies and, in part, mail services. Routes were first tested with mailbags before taking a chance with passengers. Maurice Noguès prepared the skies over Asia, particularly for Air Orient. Jean Dagnaux did likewise for Africa and South America with the Latécoère routes from Toulouse to Dakar.
The Legend of Aéropostale
Bought by Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont, a businessman based in South America, Lignes Latécoère became the Compagnie Générale Aéropostale in 1927. Aéropostale was born. Its aim was to establish a connection between France and Chile. It was more than just a project – it was an adventure involving dozens of renowned pilots that kept all of France on the edge of its seat. Under the iron rule of Didier Daurat, its leader, outstanding characters such as Mermoz, Guillaumet, Saint-Exupéry, Vachet and Vanier turned the mail flights into legends and gave 'La Ligne' its reputation for regularity and punctuality.
But in March 1931, following the Wall Street Crash, the French government stopped its subsidies, despite having signed a definitive contract. Aéropostale had to suspend its payments and was placed in compulsory liquidation. Its assets would later be purchased by the future national airline.
Strength in numbers
At the end of the 1920s, French airlines were not receiving sufficient return and the government was continuing to give them large subsidies. Although the majority of European countries already had a national airline, such as KLM in the Netherlands from 1919, France remained an exception. It was time to combine efforts.