The airline industry is a global market based around the transport of goods or passengers by air. Airline corporations range in size from huge multinationals, making hundreds of flights daily, to a tiny regional company that depends on a single plane. Airlines provide crucial support to businesses, governments and individuals who depend on international travel or commerce. Despite some rocky financial periods, the airline industry plays an essential role in maintaining a global economy.
Commercial flights began within a decade of the invention of aircraft in the early 20th century. World wars I and II left a surplus of aircraft and pilots worldwide. By the 1950s, airline companies created the framework of international travel and commerce that exists to this day. While some airlines are state-owned, independent companies are vulnerable to economic uncertainties. Changes in government regulations and an intensely competitive market have created hardships in the industry, as did the terrorist hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001.
Internationally, airlines transport more than two billion passengers annually. Passenger transport creates more than $400 billion in annual airline revenue. Passengers fly for a variety of reasons, including corporate and government business. But the majority are tourists; international tourism is a $900 billion-a-year industry. While some passengers experience discomfort and anxiety, others enjoy flight so much they fly for its own sake, including in specialized aircraft like gliders and hot-air balloons.
Air freight accounts for between $40 billion and $60 billion in airline revenue annually. Express delivery services such as FedEx, the largest cargo airline, depend on their worldwide network of aircraft, which are in constant use. Shipping customers use air transport for a variety of cargo that requires speedy delivery, such as food or emergency supplies. Air cargo can range from non-essential luxury items, such as live lobsters, to life-saving materials, like organs for transplant.
Air travel demands a high level of specialized labor and equipment that cannot be safely compromised by such corporate cost-saving measures as budget cutbacks and employee downsizing. Consequently, most large airline corporations operate at a far slimmer profit margins than other companies of comparable size. Bankruptcies and mergers have been commonplace since airline deregulation in the 1970s, even among storied companies like Pan Am and Eastern, two pioneers that no longer exist in any form.
The nature of air travel creates security scenarios that demand special attention. Hijackers sometimes seize passenger aircraft, for reasons ranging from political extremism to simple theft. Criminals often employ cargo shipments to transport dangerous or illegal materials, with or without the knowledge of airline employees. Most countries have enacted security measures to counter these activities, including checkpoints equipped with X-rays and metal detectors, air marshals and drug-sniffing dogs. Other safety concerns include accidents, mechanical failure and environmental dangers. Security has been a primary concern of airlines for decades, and especially since 2001.