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French Air Transport of the Interwar

Updated on December 19, 2017
A (principal) route map for Air France in 1938. In actuality, the French air network was even larger.
A (principal) route map for Air France in 1938. In actuality, the French air network was even larger.

France has always been one of the great aviation nations, and was a pioneer of air transport. Arguably the first nation to possess an international airoute, launched on March 22 1919 between Paris and Brussels (although it was not a daily one), during the Interwar France had both a domestic aviation sector, but also a large network of imperial and international connections : running East to Saigon, Hanoi, and Hong Kong, and West as to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Santiago, and South as far as Tananarive in Madagascar. A bewildering host of airlines flew under the French flag, and it wasn't until 1933 that they were absorbed into Air France : even then, other airlines continued to survive.

Thus in this era where man first set his visions peaceful towards the mass utilization of the skies, France was a leading nation among the world's airlines, one which participated in the drama, the romance, the successes, and the failures, of the first faltering steps to truly make use of the skies.


Due to France possessing one of the best railroad networks in Europe, and with only a few very large cities (Paris dominated the others, meaning that there was less need for inter-city transport), the French domestic air transport market was relatively small. There was only a brief period after the Great War, when surface transport was disrupted : during this period, French civil aviation in 1919 had set up links between Paris and Lille to provide food and clothing to this ravaged region, and daily flights to Bordeaux started on 22 March, taking 4 hours and 50 minutes, and then the day after from Avignon to Nice and from Rabat to Algiers. In 1928, Germany had a 60,000 kilometer long domestic network : France a 3,000 kilometer network. Air France's internal services were mostly stopping points on the way to the Far East or to Africa, or summer resort locations, like Cannes, Biarritz (the first connections to there being formed by the Compagnie des Transports Aéronautiques du Sud-Ouest in 1919), la Baule, and other resorts. Air Bleu was formed in 1935, which linked Paris with the provinces for mail. It connected to Grenoble, Nice, Perpignan, and Pau, using Caudron Simouns aircraft. It however, collapsed 13 months later : for a country like France, with a sophisticated railroad regime, there was little opportunity for aircraft to offer a meaningful time saving as compared to the train over the short distances available. The same occurred early on for the New York-Washington route in the United States : trains left with business mail at the end of the working day, and had arrived by 9 the next morning, giving little benefit for aircraft to improve.

Colonial and Foreign

France had a large colonial empire, and to serve this its airlines opened up routes to connect. But it also had less explicitly imperial routes, such as its network in Europe, and its connections to South America with the famed Aéropostale.


France is a European country, and so naturally its air routes centered upon Europe. Immediately following the end of the Great War, French flights had been active in the Balkans, with military services linking together important points : Athens to Salonika in the summer of 1918, and by September 1919, to Kichinev in Moldavia. French domestic flights to Lille were also extended to Brussels in August 1919. However, French air lines had various problems which were troubling for them early on. Germany refused to give them air transit rights over their territory, so to link to places like Warsaw, instead of flying through Germany, it was necessary to go through Switzerland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Still, throughout this period, French airliners and later Air France constantly improved and reached more and more destinations.

By 1933, only the capitals of Sweden, Italy, and Spain were not reached, among the important European countries. By 1936 though, Stockholm had been connected, and direct servies opened to Geneva and Frankfurt.

One of the biggest lines existing was between Paris and London, the two biggest European cities, and one which provided lots of traffic and time savings over other forms of transport. French Farman Goliaths, a bomber conversion, operated routinely on this route (the first flight taking place on February 8 1919 : regular flights began within a few months, with a fare of 365 francs and a journey time of 2 hours 50 minutes), while on the British side Handley Page airliners competed in return. later the French replaced the LeO 21 airliners on this route with Wibault 282 triplane monoplanes which were much faster, and then Potez 62s with more passengers and faster speeds, and the unsuccessful Breguet 393. The Bloch 220 was an excellent later addition in 1938, and helped to serve 32,000 passengers with Air France on this route, out-competing the British Imperial Airways. Intriguingly, since traffic congestion increasingly worsened since then, the 1 1/4 hours of flight time between Le Bourget Airport and Croydon airport in England meant that this was the fastest connection time between the center of the two respective capitol cities for the next two decades at the least.

Latécoére's air route to Brazil.
Latécoére's air route to Brazil.

South America

Since it was impossible to traverse the Atlantic by aeroplane (commercially) during the 1920s, any airline which aimed to travel from Europe to South America required to have at least some part of the voyage by ship. Utilizing aircraft however, to fly to Western Africa, such as the city of Dakar - and then a voyage by sea to North-East Brazil - followed by continued flights down the coast to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, meant that the time required for mail, or later passengers, could be cut admirably. Thus for France, Africa and South America were interlinked, as the lines which ran to Dakar were part of a mechanism to reach South America. However, Africa also had its own networks of lines.

Lignes Aériennes Latécorère had managed to open a service to Casablanca in Morocco by September 1919, which was extended to Dakar in Senegal on June 1 1925. It wasn't until May 29 1936 that regular passenger service would begin, the line being principally for mail usage (although sometimes carrying passengers intermittently). By this time Latécorère, after several name changes (most prominently Aéropostale), had been absorbed into Air France. The main focus of the line however, had been its connection to South America, with obsolete French destroyers being used to ferry mail between Dakar and Natal : the total voyage time was cut to 8 days by this route, between Toulouse and Buenos Aires, from 1 March 1928 onwards. By May 11 1930, a Latécoère flying boat flez fro, Dakar to Natal - a voyage time of 19 hours and 35 minutes, but one which brought the journey down to just 4 days! By May 3, 1940, Air France had conducted 600 Atlantic crossings. This was not a small operation, and already by 1928 there were 80 pilots, 250 mechanics, 53 radios, 260 sailors, 318 aircraft, 21 flying boats, 1,351 motors, 6 fast avisos, 10 cutters, and 6 repair stations, with 22 million letters transported in 1929 and 32 million in 1930. Some 98% of all French postal earnings went to it during this period.

There was a friendly competition with German airlines, who first used zeppelins but later switched to heavier than air aircraft, with seaplanes launched from depot ships in the Atlantic.

While Air France never sustained flights with North America, the Latécoère 521 had various sister planes being constructed or entering service, which would have rendered the French capable of trans-atlantic passenger travel to North America.


On March 28th of 1935, Aéromaritime was founded by Compagnie des Chargeurs Réunis, for air service within French Sub-Saharan Africa. Caudron Goeland twin-engined biplanes were used to connect Cotonou in Dahomey and Niamey in Niger for example, later connecting to Dakar via Konakry, Monrovia, and Abidjan on March 1, 1937. May 17th brought an additional connection, to Takoradi (Ghana), Douala (Cameroon), and Point Noire (Congo Brazzaville), meaning that a connection existed with the aid of Sikorsky S.43 amphibians across all of French West and Equatorial Africa! Mailervice to Madagasca first started out as a transport to Elisabethville, which was then followed by Belgian Syndicat des Transports Aériens du Katanga to Broken Hill in northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), followed by transport to Madagascar by the Service de la Navigation Aérienne de Madagascar. This system, starting on July 29 1934, was soon superceded by direct all-French line on 1 Septemner 1937, carried out by Air Afrique. In Madagascar proper, Régie Malgache was the air transport company, later setting up services under the name Service de l'Aéronautique Civile.

The Potez 120, used by both Régie Malgache and in this photo, Air Afrique
The Potez 120, used by both Régie Malgache and in this photo, Air Afrique


The main French colonial territories in Asia, east of Syria and Lebanon (connected to France via flying boat), were those of Indochina. While France was not privy to the competitive race between KLM and British Imperial, there was still an effort to link these back to the metropole. Lignes d'Orient had been formed in 1927 as a branch of Air Union, aiming to reach Indochina, and it later became Air Orient. Mail service between Marseilles and Syria began by June 1929, and by 17 January 1931, Air Orient had a 10 day mail service to Saigon, and passenger service to Baghdad. Lioré et Olivier LeO 4242 flying boats flew on the Mediterranean section, while Breguet 280s carried out the rest. It continued to expand, with the Dewoitine 338 airliners providing more comfortable service, and the passenger amd mail line reaching Hong Kong by 4 August, 1938. Along the route, the French largely shared much of the same route infrastructure as the British and Dutch. It took 10 1/2 days to reach Saigon, on a weekly service, at the beginning : this might have further improved later on.


Although the French aeronautical industry between the wars failed to secure a dominant position in international sales, asides from a brief period of influence after the Great War, it was still enough so that France could largely depend on its internal production for airliners. In 1931 the French airline fleet was almost entirely composed of French aircraft except for compagnie internationale de navigation arienne (CIDNA) and Air Orient which had a number of Fokker planes. In contrast, only the Yugoslavian airline Aeroput and the Spanish airline CLASSA) had French airliners operating with them (CLASSA only had one French aircraft). Air France at the time of its formation in 1933 had 259 aircraft, in 35 different types, of which 172 were single-engined aircraft : in effect, this meant an inefficient and unprofitable fleet.

Profits and Statistics

Its hard to know for sure many of the details of French transport infrastructure in the interwar, due to the passage of time. Most statistics detail only with passengers, and thus leaves much in the dark. The French aviation industry was heavily subsidized, but the results to show for it were limited. 1928 for example, French airliners only earned 10.6% of their income from purely commercial activities, while their German counterpart of Lufthansa stood at around 30% : subsidies were a much larger percentage of the French airliner revenue. In 1933, they were 80% of their income. Air France when formed in 1933 swallowed up the 5 previous airlines and brought some efficiency improvements, but French airlines continued to trail their German counterpart (principally Deutsch Lufthansa) throughout the 1930s.

This can be compared to the international number of passengers in 1928-1929, in the following table. Of course, there might be some difference here as this just shows passengers carried, compared to the total level of air service : French international lines might carry passengers a long distance than say, German domestic lines.

By comparison a table for 1939 exists : it can be shown that France had slipped behind both Italy and the Netherlands during the 1930s.

None of this was to say that growth was not constant and important, even in the worst years of the depression, as the following table lays out. It just trailed behind all too often that of other nations.

Million passenger miles, growth, per year, by country.
Million passenger miles, growth, per year, by country.


France had its failings and its shortcomings throughout the interwar during the long race to build up airline industries. But she also had her triumphs, when French airliners crossed first across the Atlantic, when they flew to Saigon, and across the heart of Africa. In the end it ended with catastrophe in 1940, but like a phoenix, the French airline industry arose anew after the war from the ashes, the inheritor of a glorious legacy.

Recommended Reading

R.E.G Davies, A History of the World's Airlines, London, Oxford University Press, 1964

A Clash of Military Cultures : German & French Approaches to Technology Between the World Wars, by James S. Corum

Henrick Chapman, State Capitalism and Working-Class Radicalism in the French Aircraft Industry

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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