During the early years of manned flight, aviation was a free for all because no government body was in place to establish policies or regulate and enforce safety standards. Individuals were free to conduct flights and operate aircraft with no government oversight. Most of the early flights were conducted for sport. Aviation was expensive and became the playground of the wealthy. Since these early airplanes were small, many people doubted their commercial value. One group of individuals believed otherwise and they became the genesis for modern airline travel.
A public auction decided who would win the honor of becoming the first paying airline customer. The former mayor of St. Petersburg, A. C. Pheil made the winning bid of $400.00 which secured his place in history as the first paying airline passenger.
On January 1, 1914, the first scheduled airline flight was conducted. The flight length was 21 miles and lasted 23 minutes due to a headwind. The return trip took 20 minutes. The line, which was subsidized by Florida businessmen, continued for 4 months and offered regular passage for $5.00 per person or $5.00 per 100 pounds of cargo. Shortly after the opening of the line, Benoist added a new airboat that afforded more protection from spray during takeoff and landing. The routes were also extended to Manatee, Bradenton, and Sarasota giving further credence to the idea of a profitable commercial airline.
The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line continued throughout the winter months with flights finally being suspended when the winter tourist industry began to dry up. The airline operated only for 4 months, but 1,205 passengers were carried without injury. This experiment proved commercial passenger airline travel was viable.
The advent of World War I offered the airplane a chance to demonstrate its varied capabilities. It began the war as a reconnaissance platform, but by 1918, airplanes were being mass produced to serve as fighters, bombers, trainers, as well as reconnaissance platforms.
Aviation advocates continued to look for ways to use airplanes. Airmail service was a popular idea, but the war prevented the Postal Service from having access to airplanes. The War Department and Postal Service reached an agreement in 1918. The Army would use the mail service to train its pilots in cross-country flying. The first airmail flight was conducted on May 15, 1918, between New York and Washington, DC. The flight was not considered spectacular; the pilot became lost and landed at the wrong airfield. In August of 1918, the United States Postal Service took control of the airmail routes and brought the existing Army airmail pilots and their planes into the program as postal employees.