Wings of Globalization? New Approaches to the History of Commercial Aviation, 1920s–2020s

Oct 31, 2024 - Nov 02, 2024

International Conference at the German Historical Institute Washington | Conveners: Andreas Greiner (GHI Washington) and Stefan Rinke (Freie Universität Berlin)

In cooperation with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Call for Papers

The 2020s mark the centennial of commercial aviation. One hundred years ago, pioneering airlines such as SCADTA in Colombia and KLM in the Netherlands began to develop an intercontinental network of air routes. Lufthansa, Pan American Airways, and other companies followed suit. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight promoted civil aviation to a broader audience, however, flying remained prohibitively expensive for all but the elite. Still, it was in the early years of commercial operation that many of the structures and travel practices that are common today were established, including code sharing, in-flight meals, and restrictive bag policies. The aviation industry has proven itself to be an engine for globalization.

By the early 1940s, over 200,000 miles of air routes spanned the globe, interconnecting every continent except for Antarctica. After the Second World War, the jet age brought about new travel culture, speed, and a physical condition known as “jet lag”. As early as 1955, Americans preferred traveling domestically by airplanes rather than by railroads. Since then, the travel industry has seen the rise of mass tourism southbound from North America and Europe into warmer climates as well as the rise of low-cost carriers and a pan-European “easyJet generation”. Terrorism, debates on air travel’s impact on the environment and climate, and the grounding of the entire aviation industry during the COVID-19 pandemic have cumulatively exposed the numerous downsides and vulnerability of this global infrastructure system.

History writing has always had a keen interest in commercial aviation with the first official historical narratives of airlines and international agencies being published as early as the 1940s. Subsequent research has embedded negotiations for air rights and the extension of state-sponsored airlines in the study of international relations as well as in the broader histories of imperialism, the interwar period, the Cold War era, and growing globalization thereafter. Related to this interest in diplomacy and politics, academic writing has also always focused on the technological and economic aspects of civil aviation including the airplanes themselves. In addition, from the 1980s forward, scholars have increasingly devoted attention to the cultural implications of flight and a society’s “air-mindedness”, as initially discussed in Joseph J. Corn’s groundbreaking book The Winged Gospel (1983). More recently, human geographers have posed novel questions concerning the social production and consumption of flying as well as the interaction between human, machine, and environment. Academic efforts have at the same time shed a new light on airports, cabins, and the in-flight experience through the lens of postcolonial studies and by scrutinizing aspects of race, gender, and class.

Given these many methodological backgrounds, aviation history is a nascent field equipped with a multifaceted toolkit. It is able to combine analytical tools from science and technology studies with approaches from environmental, cultural, diplomatic, imperial history as well as gender studies and related disciplines. Currently there are numerous projects being pursued at universities across all continents. However, until now, these scholars have never had the opportunity to engage with one another.

This conference brings together scholars working in the various fields of aviation history, broadly defined. We invite scholars from different methodological and historical backgrounds to convene expertise and develop a common research agenda. The thematic range includes, but is not limited to, the following potential topics:

  • Economic, cultural, and (post)colonial perspectives on civil aviation
  • Aspects of maintenance, repair, failure, and breakdown
  • Interconnectivity and conflicts with other infrastructure systems, such as railroads
  • Passenger and cabin crew experiences
  • Automation and the human factor
  • International rivalries and aviation
  • Technological aspects of aviation (aerial photography etc.)
  • Cultural dimensions of aviation (music, art, film etc.)

The event is jointly organized by the German Historical Institute and the Institute for Latin American Studies of Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The conference will take place from October 31 to November 2, 2024 and will be hosted by the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C.

Please submit an abstract (max. 500 words) and a short biography (max. 150 words) in English via the GHI online platform by December 15, 2023.

Decisions of acceptance will be announced by January 8, 2024. Accommodations will be arranged and paid for by the conference organizers. Participants will make their own travel arrangements; funding subsidies for travel is available upon request for selected scholars, especially those who might not otherwise be able to attend the workshop, including junior scholars and scholars from universities with limited resources.

Please contact Nicola Hofstetter ( if you have any difficulties submitting your information online or if you have other questions related to the event.