The Rise and Fall of the Exuberant Airline Map

Who among us hasn’t killed time at 30,000 feet tracing the arcing lines of an airline network map in an in-flight magazine? These sterile maps are in fact the descendants of a raucous cartographic genre that has historically stretched the limits of what maps are for.

Less a tool for navigation and more an introduction to a radically new, globe-girdling mode of transportation, airline maps tapped into the romance of flight and the technological innovations that enabled its expansion, all while attempting to reassure potential passengers that soaring through the heavens in a metal tube was a safe and convenient way to travel.

In their new book Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design (Penguin Books, $30), released on October 29, authors Maxwell Roberts and Mark Ovenden present this pictorial history—complete with homages to previous map genres and plenty of art deco and mod aesthetics. Both authors have previously written books about transit maps: Ovenden, Transit Maps of the World, and Roberts, Underground Maps Unravelled.

In the Q&A that follows, the authors discuss what makes airline maps unique in the history of mapmaking and how they hope contemporary designers will respond to their book. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

As you write in the book, airline maps function pretty differently from subway maps. They’re not focused on the utility of getting from A to B. They’re more amorphous in their purpose.

Ovenden: Airline maps are not constrained the way that railway maps are. Nobody knows what the flight paths are, so the designer’s got completely free hands. Because they’re not intended for navigation, they’re intended for empire-defining. And that gives the design a completely different first principals from a railway map.

Roberts: Without the need to show what’s going on on the ground, it seems like designers have completely gone to town with some really wild and crazy ideas about how a plane might look flying above the planet. When you go back to some of these maps from before we even knew what the globe looked like from space, you can see that designers were using their imagination to imagine what it must be like to fly above the Earth and look down at the planet. Some of the maps we have are more similar to Google Earth than an actual travel pattern.

Ovenden: It’s quite funny with these old maps. If the planes really did fly that high, all the passengers would be dead.

One of the major throughlines of the book is the history of flight itself—how the industry, the technology have changed over time. How is that reflected in the maps themselves?

Ovenden: One of the things that a lot of these designers do is they actually draw the plane and stick it on these imaginary flight paths across the globe. A lot of them are produced without dates on them, so you actually date the maps by the type of plane depicted on the map.

Roberts: The two biggest things you see on the maps, is, one, the polar routes. As soon as planes reached a certain range, they could actually take shortcuts around the top of the world. A lot of maps, too many to put in the book, advertised going the shortest possible route across the pole.

And of course there are jets. Jet technology changed everything. The maps actually say, “Fly by our jets.” Older maps also show the stopoff points—so if you’re flying from the Netherlands to Indonesia, it’s a long trip with a lot of stopoffs. And gradually these get less and less, until the routes are all pretty much nonstop.

An abstract, watercolor-like 1960 Delta map boasts of the airline’s “big jets.” (Courtesy of Delta Flight Museum, Atlanta)

What was flight like in the early, pre-jet days? Were maps trying to respond to people’s concerns about the experience of flying when it was kind of an unproven technology?

Ovenden: In my mind, when people talk about the dangers of early flight, you need to think about 1,400 people dying in the Titanic disaster. Travel was just dangerous in those days.

Roberts: Another thing was the comfort inside the planes. The people who could start to afford air travel in the ’40s and ’50s generally were squashed in and cold, with not particularly good service. And it was only really with the jet airlines, when pressurized aircraft came in, that there was an increase in confidence. It must have been pretty chilly in those early days.

Another interesting historical point that I gleaned from the book is that a lot of the early European airlines, like KLM and the ancestor of British Airways, were state-subsidized enterprises that were part of the management of colonial empires. What do the maps say about that era?

Roberts: Certainly with British maps, with the name Imperial Airways, they’re saying, “We’re serving the corners of the empire.”

Ovenden: One of the things that Max and I noticed when we were looking through these maps, particularly from the colonial period, is the patronizing stereotypes of the places they were flying to.

A 1919 ad for the French aviation company Lignes Aériennes Latécoère, showing its multi-stop route from Toulouse to Casablanca. (Allen Airways Flying Museum)

All through the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, you have these little vignettes of what the local people might look like in that part of Africa or India or whatever colony. And some of them are very stereotyped and outdated, and borderline racist. That fades out a bit in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where the landmarks of countries are more like famous buildings, or the kind of animals you see there.

Some of these maps have so many weird little embellishments, they remind me of seafaring maps from the age of exploration. From a cartographic perspective, how are these maps in conversation with maps from the past?

Ovenden: I like the ones with the wind blowing [as a personification]. You would never get that on a railway map. But on a lot of those ‘20s and ‘30s maps, there’s a lot of these completely unnecessary things.

Roberts: There’s a wonderful American Airlines map with the signs of the zodiac going across the routes. Air travel was completely new, so they were sort of looking for imagery showing how the world was being joined up, and they went for this old-fashioned cartographic imagery as a way to show that.

How do you account for this burst of creativity, and the huge variety of maps you show in the book in this nascent genre of mapmaking?

Roberts: Air travel is an exciting thing to do and it inspires people. As soon as flight came along, people could do things that they could never ever do before. That sense of newness and excitement has to inspire design in some ways. It’s the first completely new way of traveling in so many years, and creativity just goes through the roof.

Ovenden: You can see that designers just thought, “Wow, you want me to design an airline? Great—I can make it really exciting and unusual because there’s no precedent.”

But some of the maps in the book are really geometric and straightforward, like transit maps. I’m wondering, how are these airlines dealing with some of the problems of transit maps? For instance, how do you get a lot of lines to a central station, or a hub in terms of air travel?

Roberts: I’m not sure that they do. I’ve actually looked closely at a lot of these airline maps and tried to get my head around them, and actually some make no sense at all. They’re essentially unusable. And that’s the big irony with airline maps: Nobody’s ever used an airline map to plan a journey.

Ovenden: We also included a series of maps that are perhaps less than beautiful, just to show the incredible range of ideas that people have come up with. What this age of experimentation shows is that they were trying to grope toward a way of showing these very complex things and not always succeeding.

You talk about how some of the creativity you see in the pre-jet age kind of disappears by midcentury. How do you explain the bland pullouts you find in today’s in-flight magazines?

Roberts: It’s down to how flight isn’t exciting the way that it was before. The last big inspiration for maps was the jet age. That produced a burst of creativity, and the next major change after that was large aircraft.

But big is actually not that exciting. It’s wonderful for the economics of flight, but it’s not that exciting from a passenger point of view. Then you get deregulation, and after that the whole designing process is cheapened a little.

To follow your logic, do you think, for the world to be blessed with beautiful airline maps once again, we’re going to have to wait for another major technological innovation in flight?

Roberts: Either that, or just for designers to realize that what they’re producing now is a little bit bland. It’s not really advertising the airlines. It would be nice if designers looked through this book and said, “Maybe we are slacking it a bit.”

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