The other day I visited the Boeing Museum of Flight in Seattle and found out about this interesting story. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt received a mandate to change America through his landslide election, and one of the many ways he went about doing so was through a re-examination of the dispensing of air mail contracts under the Hoover Administration under Postmaster General Walter Brown. The dispensing of air mail contracts had met with protests from smaller airlines, many of whom had in truth sold their contracts already. Brown had looked at the financials of these companies and found that most were dependent on government help and unwilling to make major investments to enable them to grow. Thus, most routes and contracts were awarded to larger airlines with some smaller companies forced to merge to survive at a conference which became known as the “spoils conference” for its alleged corruption. The Roosevelt Administration provided an outlet for such complaints and one of his top legislative supporters, Senator Hugo Black of Alabama, was on the case. His special committee heard and agreed with charges of collusion and favoritism and in the course of the investigation held William P. MacCracken Jr., the former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, in contempt of Congress, for which he was convicted (Lee).
On February 9, 1934, President Roosevelt canceled all air mail contracts effective February 19th despite the committee not proving illegality and in the meantime employed the Army Air Corps to deliver the mail. An unusually bad winter combined with a lack of training of these pilots in night flying resulted in 66 crashes or forced landings, with twelve crew members being killed over a period of less than three months. They also often had to work with less than adequate equipment, thus the Army Air Corps hadn’t in truth been given enough time. Famed World War I fighter ace and airline businessman Eddie Rickenbacker denounced the flights as “legalized murder”. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who was also an airline consultant, testified against the Roosevelt Administration’s approach before Congress. The weakened opposition Republicans also took their opportunity to chime in, with Roosevelt Administration foe Rep. Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) proclaiming, “The story of the air mail will be written in blood on the record of the Roosevelt Administration” (Correll, 64). Most of the blame by the Administration and leading Democrats was foisted upon Major General Benjamin Foulois, who had assured the second assistant postmaster general that the Air Corps could take over the job. Although most of the mail was delivered during this time, the higher incidence of crashes and pilot deaths caused a rush to return air mail to the private sector, and the resulting legislation, the Air Mail Act of 1934, mostly returned the routes and contracts to the arrangements worked out under Brown and unconstitutionally barred, without trial, executives and companies who participated in the conference from bidding on the new contracts. The companies got around it by simply renaming and placing bids. One executive who got banned without even benefiting from the conference was United Airlines’ Philip G. Johnson, who went on participate in the founding of Trans-Canada Airlines. Two major winners, on the other hand, of this law were American Airlines’ E.L. Cord, a major contributor to Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign, and Braniff Airlines, the founders who were politically active Texas Democrats (Van der Linden, 229-235). Neither had participated in the conference. Boeing’s founder, William Boeing, was embittered by the matter and opted for early retirement. Brown’s actions as well as the Air Mail Act of 1934 ultimately resulted in airlines carrying more passengers than mail, bringing about the modern airline industry.
In 1941, Brown and the airline executives involved in the “spoils conference” were exonerated of accusations of fraud and collusion in the awarding of air mail contracts by the U.S. Court of Claims. The outcome of this whole affair was the increased deaths of air mail crew, a reorganization that had changed little from what had happened during the Hoover Administration, and the unjust punishments of executives caught up in the populist fervor of the times.
1934 Airmail Scandal. Smithsonian National Postal Museum.
Correll, J.T. (March 2008). The Air Mail Fiasco. AIR FORCE Magazine.
Lee, D.D. (1991). Senator Black’s Investigation of the Air Mail 1933-34. The Historian 53: 423-42.
The Air Mail “Scandal”. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Van der Linden, F.R. (2002). Airlines and air mail: The post office and birth of the commercial aviation industry. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press.