Flying boat Benoist
Tony Jannus pilots the Benoist flying boat in 1914. creative commons

It was Jan. 1, 1914, when a 25-year-old test pilot by the name of Tony Jannus flew aircraft designer Thomas Benoist’s wood-and-muslin “Flying Boat No. 43” across Tampa Bay and into aviation history. Though the journey lasted a paltry 23 minutes and had just one paying passenger (Abram Phell, then mayor of St. Petersburg, who paid $400 at auction), the trip would go down in the record books as the world’s first scheduled commercial airline flight.

The St. Petersburg to Tampa Airboat Line was the brainchild of Jacksonville-based electrical engineer Percival Fansler. According to archived reports of that fateful day 100 years ago, Fansler told a crowd of 3,000 gathered in St. Petersburg that the Airboat Line to Tampa would be “a forerunner of great activity.”

“What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment of today -- while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable,” he said. Fansler’s rickety seaplane was powered by a noisy, six-cylinder, 75-horsepower engine and operated for just four months, but his ambition struck a chord with the public. He and his fellow aviation pioneers had unwittingly kickstarted an industry that today provides a kind of global connectivity that was “unbelievable” a century ago.

To put this achievement in perspective, consider this: On Jan. 1, 1914, one commercial passenger flew on one commercial flight. On Jan. 1, 2014, an estimated 8 million people flew on nearly 100,000 flights.

Statistics from the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, show that some 3.1 billion people flew in 2013, surpassing the 3 billion mark for the first time ever. That figure is expected to grow to 3.3 billion by 2014 and represents about 44 percent of the world’s population.

But it’s not just people who fly. An estimated 50 million tons of cargo are transported each year, representing an annual value of some $6.4 trillion (or 35 percent of the value of goods traded internationally). Meanwhile, the aviation industry supports more than 57 million jobs and generates $2.2 trillion in economic activity. According to IATA, the industry’s direct economic contribution of around $540 billion would, if translated into the GDP ranking of countries, place the industry in 19th position.

“The first flight provided a short-cut across Tampa Bay. Today the aviation industry re-unites loved ones, connects cultures, expands minds, opens markets and fosters development. Aviation provides people around the globe with the freedom to make connections that can change their lives and the world,” Tony Tyler, IATA’s director general and CEO, explained in a statement announcing the new website

IATA, which represents 240 airlines (or 84 percent of the world’s total air traffic), invited the flying public to join in a yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of commercial aviation and take part in a conversation about what needs to happen to make the next 100 years even more momentous.

“Aviation is a force for good. And the potential of commercial flight to keep changing the world for the better is almost unlimited,” Tyler said. “Growing and sustainably spreading the benefits of connectivity will require the industry, governments, regulators and local communities keep true to the ‘all-in-it-together’ ethos that was the bedrock of that pioneering first flight. And we should be guided by the long-term interests of all whose lives are positively transformed by commercial aviation every day.”

IATA sponsored a re-enactment of the first commercial passenger flight Wednesday using a Hoffman X-4 “Mullet Skiff” amphibious flying boat, similar in many respects to the original Benoist airboat. The Hoffman took off from St. Petersburg just after 10:00 a.m. EST and retraced the exact path taken by Jannus and Phell a century ago.

Organizers had hoped to fly a reproduction Benoist, but had to switch aircraft at the last minute when aerobatic pilot Kermit Weeks was unable to get the reproduction airborne. Despite the setback, nearly two-dozen of Benoist’s decedents came to St Petersburg to witness the memorial flight by substitute pilot Eddie Hoffman Jr., which was the first in a series of events to honor Florida’s role in aviation history.

“A hundred years is something worth celebrating,” Tyler noted of the event. “And we look forward to creating an equally remarkable legacy for commercial aviation’s second century.”