Air Travel – The Revolution

After the World War One ban on civil aviation was lifted on 25th August 1919 and this revolutionary new mode of mass transport could begin, London’s airport was moved from the temporary aerodrome at Hounslow Heath to the much larger and better equipped airfield at Croydon on 29th March 1920. Croydon Aerodrome was an amalgamation of RAF Station Beddington and Waddon Aerodrome.  It was here that Britain’s fledging airlines sought to establish regular intercontinental passenger services. Aircraft Transport and Travel (AT &T) Ltd and Instone Airline promptly moved in followed by Handley Page Ltd in 1921. These fledgling airlines predominately used converted World War One bombers. Pilots flew in open cockpits and had to endure the extremes of weather that Mother Nature would throw at them. For passengers the journey was little better. Although the passenger cabins were enclosed, they were cold and noisy, being constructed of wood and canvas featuring no heating or sound insulation.

Winston Churchill, in his book “Thoughts and Adventures”, gives an account of his flying lessons at Croydon Aerodrome. Churchill gives a vivid recollection of one of his final flying lessons that resulted in a brutal crash. Fortunately for Britain, it was a crash he survived.

Passenger numbers grew significantly from when the airport was opened in 1920. The first year of operations saw 6383 passengers flying to the continent from Croydon (incl the first 3 months from Hounslow Heath), rising to 10730 in 1921, and to 26,000 a year when the new terminal building was opened in 1928. The early 1930’s saw a sharp jump in passenger numbers as you can see below:

1931

44,944 passengers

1932

70,162 passengers

1933

87,115 passengers

1935

120,390 passengers

These figures demonstrate, for the time period in question, that this was the busiest airport in the UK and one of the busiest in the world.

1935 is the first year that the Air Ministry published detailed figures that included all the new municipal aerodromes around the UK that had gradually become operational as the 1930’s progressed. Of the eighteen operational airports in the UK, the figures show that London Croydon Airport handled 84% of all the UK’s air cargo (3894.4 tons), 49% (120,390) of all UK passengers and 62% of all the UK’s air mail (596.1 tons). The average load factor per passenger flight was the highest of all UK airports at around 66%, with the significant majority of all international passengers using the airport. The next busiest UK airport was Portsmouth with 25,000 passengers.

In 1920 the airport employed 49 Air Ministry staff. By 1934 there were 1146 employees at the airport.

The new airport terminal, opened in 1928, was built with a rooftop viewing gallery which was a very popular tourist attraction – so much so that the Air Ministry needed to employ full time Tour Guides at the airport to meet demand. It was the UK’s most visited airport and the Air Ministry recorded visitor numbers (see below)

1930

28,454 visitors to the building

1932

58,583 visitors to the building

1934

94,867 visitors to the building

1936

107,059 visitors to the building

In addition to visitors to the terminal, there were also 93750 visitors to the separate public enclosure in the 1930s.

The above figures exclude visitors for special events such as the return of Amy Johnson after her historic record-breaking flights or the visit of Charles Lindbergh after his solo flight across the Atlantic. These occasions would attract over 100,000 visitors to the airport and when Amy Johnson returned from her record breaking flight to Australia it was reported that one million people lined the streets of South London to view her cavalcade.