Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the flight – Babies on a plane: United Air Lines Incorporated and its Nurseryliner service

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Some mothers and children about to get aboard one of the Douglas DC-3 airliners turned into Nurseryliners by United Air Lines Incorporated, San Francisco, California, April or May 1946. Anon., “Service aérien pour bébés.” Photo-Journal, 20 June 1946, 12.

May I begin this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee with a question, my reading friend? Do you think babies are cute? Human ones of course, but also puppies and kittens? Well, it looks as if this cuteness is no accident. No siree. The cuteness of these little burpers is built in so that their parents will lavish love and attention upon them, thus improving said burpers’ chances of survival, thus improving the likelihood our species will survive to mess up the environment even further – a situation which all but negates the very idea of so-called intelligent design, but I digress.

The topic of this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, say I, has to do with babies. On a plane. Lots of babies.

In 1946, one or more people in the upper management of one of the major and great airlines of the United States, United Air Lines Incorporated, had a light bulb moment. One out of every 150 of its passengers was an infant. The removal of the last restrictions on air travel imposed during the Second World War meant that this number was bound to increase. How could it not? After all, said management knew that young mothers thought that air travel offered the best combination of speed and comfort when travelling from point B to point A. And yes, United Air Lines was mentioned a few times in our you know what since March 2018.

A not very brief digression if I may. One has to wonder if William Palmer Lucas, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco, California, and founder of the Department of Pediatrics at said university, in 1913, did not play a role in initiating this project. Indeed, the good doctor had been promoting the use of airliners for long distance travel with children for years.

A second not very brief digression if I may. The birth rate in the United States began to rise quite significantly in 1946, thus giving birth, quite literally, to a gigantic cohort of people born between 1946 and the mid-60s known as the baby boomers, or boomers, the most vain / stuck up / smug / selfish / self-serving / self-seeking / self-loving / self-interested / self-indulgent / self-glorifying / self-centered / self-aggrandising / self-absorbed / prideful / pompous / narcissistic / inner-directed / egotistical / conceited / big-headed and “me me me” generation of Homo sapiens ever, the one which created the cultural, economic(al), environmental, financial, political and social sh*istorm / cr*pfest / clusterf*ck the younger generations were, are and will be stuck with. And yes, yours truly is a baby boomer.

What can be worse than a baby boomer, you ask? How about 73 or so millions of them in the United States alone in 2020 – about 22 % of the country’s population.

How bad are boomers? The United States Navy’s ballistic missile submarines, these undetectable (?) launch platforms for weapons of mass destructions, are commonly referred to as boomers. Need I say (type?) more?

Incidentally, the baby boom in Canada seemingly began in 1947. You see, the federal government kept a lot of people in uniform longer than its American counterpart did. And yes, baby boomers are even more numerous in Canada, percentage wise, than in the United States, which might explain a thing or three. At 10 or so millions, they made up 27 % of the country’s population in 2020, but I digress. Back to babies.

The creation of the Nurseryliner service or, as it was informally if commonly known, the diaper special service was announced a tad after the middle of March 1946, by local United Air Lines sales managers, in places as far apart as California and Québec. Although slated to start in late March, said service actually got under way a tad before the middle of April.

And so it was that United Air Lines put in operation a number of Douglas DC-3 airliners equipped with all sorts of features aimed at pleasing mothers of young children. These Nurseryliners would be flying between Los Angeles, California, and San Francisco, California, and vice versa, one flight from each direction per day (every day?), with up to 14 youngsters and their mothers. Said flights were in addition to the many flights which left both cities every hour (of every day?). The $ 15.15 fare for a one way flight, presumably for the adult, was equivalent to less than Can $ 255 in 2021 currency. Ironically, United Air Lines charged less than Can $ 60 for a one way ticket for one adult in 2021.

This being said (typed?), it looks as if tiny humans under the age of 2 rode the clouds free of charge. Yours truly cannot say (type?) if this free flying began in April 1946 or only later. Sorry.

Would you believe that an American newspaper quipped that the Nurseryliner service was “another indication that commercial aviation [was] no longer in its infancy?” Cute…

And yes, as you well know, my reading friend, there is a DC-3 in the astounding and staggering collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

The cabin crew of each Nurseryliner consisted of a dynamic duo of registered nurses especially trained to take care of infants and young children. To quote the advertisement put in several / many Californian newspapers in early April, in the nurses’ aerial tool box mothers would find “bottle coolers and warmers, books and games, baby kits, and other services available.” The only thing said mothers would need was their baby’s individual formula. Breastfeeding was not even hinted at.

Male Homo sapiens were denied entry aboard these aircraft, unless they travelled with an infant or child of course, and without their spouse. Indeed, it looks as if (early?) reservation lists were stamped “Men Not Wanted.” This being said (typed?), one has to wonder how many red-blooded Americans males, Second World War veterans in a great many cases, travelled alone with children.

And yes, as you may have guessed, the management of United Air Lines was pondering the possibility of offering the same service in other regions of the United States if the service proved popular in California.

United Air Lines’ Nurseryliner service did not go unnoticed. No siree. This being said (typed?), this air carrier may have been the only one to put in service aircraft specially equipped to carry infants and children. Other American air carriers chose instead to offer downy bassinettes to young mothers or, more precisely, the progeny of said mothers who chose to fly with them – on regular flights. Mind you, these airlines also provided toys, teething rings, bibs, strained / chopped baby food, sterilised bottles, baby powder and oil, disposable diapers and souvenirs. Do you have a question, my puzzled reading friend? Why all the hubbub, you ask?

Well, if one is to believe an unidentified American air carrier, one of every ten Homo sapiens carried aloft in the United States between the end of the Second World War and the late winter of 1946-47, or the early spring of 1947, was a tiny human with, one hopes, an adult Homo sapiens coming along for the ride. In other words, tiny humans and their guardians filled 20 % of the seats provided by American airlines between the end of the Second World War and the late winter of 1946-47, or the early spring of 1947.

If the percentage is impressive, the number behind it is even more impressive given that in 1946 alone, the American air transport industry moved 12.2 million people from point B to point A. In other words, 1.2 million infants and 1.2 million parents flew in 1946. An amazing figure, you say (type?), my astonished reading friend? It is indeed.

This being said (typed?), the very newspaper where yours truly found the percentage mentioned in the previous paragraph also stated that Pan American World Airways Incorporated, one of the major and great airlines of the United States, carried 3 000 or so infants in 1946. Only 3 000. How does such a tiny number jibe with the ginormous number in that same previous paragraph? Well, I do not think it does, or can. I have a feeling the number can be trusted a lot more than the percentage, which might explain why the Nurseryliner service presumably went bye bye at some point in 1947-48.

And no, as popular as it proved with a (small?) number of young Californian mothers, the Nurseryliner service was seemingly not offered elsewhere in the United States. It was most assuredly not offered from coast to coast, which might have been a blessing in disguise. A 2-hour and 545 kilometres (about 335 mile) nonstop flight between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a somewhat noisy and rattly DC-3 was one thing, a 7 hour 40 minute, 4 140 kilometre (about 2 570 mile) flight, not counting the one or more stops between San Francisco and New York City, New York, would have been all together something else.

Ta ta for now.

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Rénald Fortier