The carrying of paying passengers or freight by air is called air transportation. In present times, this business is done solely by airplanes. Giant dirigibles, or airships, tried to compete with the airplanes as recently as fifteen or twenty years ago, but airplanes proved to be faster and in the long run cheaper. Most of the business of companies engaged in air transportation is the carrying of passengers. Light freight and express is transported when it has to get to its destination in the least possible time, but most of the heavy freight is still transported by ships or railroads. Air transportation is probably the fastest-growing business in the world. Since the railroad was invented, about 125 years ago, it has transported most of the passengers and freight overland through the world. It still does.
However in 1954 airlines in the United States alone transported passengers more than 12 billion passenger miles, as compared to 32 billion passenger miles for the railroads, more than a third as much, and the number of air passengers was growing every year. Since passengers take airplanes only for fairly long distances, while the bulk of the railroad business is done over short distances, the airlines had at least equal the railroad companies in the number of passengers who transported over the same route. The great advantage of airplane travel is the speed with which the journey is completed. Airliners, the giant luxury planes used for passenger travel, were going more than 350 miles an hour (and jet planes, in which the British were pioneers, were approaching 500 miles an hour).
While a fast train might reach 100 miles an hour or even a bit more on a long, straight, level stretch, they had trouble averaging more than 60 miles an hour for a complete trip. The airline passenger could save anywhere from four-fifths to nine-tenths of the travel time if he went by air. On short trips, airlines were not yet able to compete with railroads, because it took so long for a passenger to get to the airport in the city he left and from the airport to the city he was traveling to. The aviation world thought this might possibly be overcome by having helicopters land in the very centers of cities.