United Airlines celebrates 85th anniversary with commemorative aircraft


CHICAGO, Ill. – United Airlines commemorates its 85th anniversary today by unveiling an Airbus A-320 painted in the airline’s 1970s-era “Friend Ship” livery at an employee celebration at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

“We are proud to celebrate United’s 85th anniversary with the more than 85,000 co-workers and thousands of retirees who have built the world’s leading airline,” said Jeff Smisek, United’s president and chief executive officer.

Employee celebrations continue throughout the week as the Friend Ship visits other United and Continental hub airports, including Denver International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, and Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport, the airline’s largest hub. Last fall, United employees selected the Friend Ship, which features stripes of deep red and sky blue and a regal star pattern, from United’s historical liveries.

“The heart of my experience at United has been working with the people who make this airline great,” said Jack Lampe, a 51-year veteran of United and Capital Airlines, which merged with United in 1961. During his career, Lampe performed most airport operations functions, and is widely credited for leading the industry in anti-icing capabilities. “We can be proud of our accomplishments and the service we’ve delivered for the past 85 years.”

United’s First Flight

United’s history began April 6, 1926, when a small Swallow biplane owned by Walter Varney completed the first airmail delivery, landing to cheering crowds in Nevada after a flight across a harsh, mountainous route. While other aviation legends saw air travel as a challenge and a sport to be conquered, Varney was among the first to recognize its business potential.

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Varney then founded Varney Air Service in 1926 after acquiring an airmail contract. He later sold the company to United Aircraft and Transport, which would change its name to United Air Lines in 1933. In 1934, Varney and his business partner Louis Mueller founded Varney Speed Lines, which was sold and renamed Continental Airlines in 1937. Both airlines would eventually become industry giants with service to hundreds of points in the U.S. and around the globe. In May 2010, United and Continental merged to become the world’s leading airline.

Then and Now

In 1926, fewer than 6,000 Americans paid to travel by plane. By 1930, about 170,000 paying passengers took to the sky each year. Boeing’s tri-motored Model 80 carried up to 18 people in an enclosed cabin – a step up from only a few years earlier when two passengers rode on top of mailbags, wearing parachutes and goggles. In 1936, people could fly coast to coast, allowing at least 20 hours for the trip, but generally bought tickets at the door of the plane just before takeoff.

By comparison, today, the new United flies more than 150 million customers each year, equal to about half the population of the U.S., and travelers can book flights from virtually anywhere. United’s largest aircraft, the 747-400, seats 374 travelers in modern comfort, offering flat-bed seats, personal inflight entertainment, hot meals and world-class service.

The new United features the world’s most comprehensive route network, offering customers access to destinations on six continents and nonstop or one-stop service from virtually anywhere in the United States. With the most modern and fuel-efficient fleet among America’s network carriers, United takes to the sky with 5,675 daily departures from nearly 375 airports.

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