Credit History: The Birth of the Air Travel Card

May 23, 2019 | News

“Putting it on plastic” has become second nature, but it all started with airline customers showing their metal.

Beginning in 1936, passengers on American Airlines were the first to “buy now, pay later” using a new concept: the Air Travel Card. Conceived by the airline and the Air Transport Association as a more convenient way to pay for airfare than by using cash, the card also rewarded users with a 15 percent discount when they purchased one-way fares.

The pioneering charge card was soon honored by 17 airlines in North America for passenger tickets and charges. At an airline’s ticket office or at the airport counter, cardholders handed over a card with a metal imprint plate containing their account info, signed the receipt for their flights and were billed later.

The Air Travel Card quickly rose in popularity, accounting for about half of participating airlines’ revenues by 1941. And although the card was an early way for airlines to streamline the passenger purchasing process, it was the forerunner of a massive financial industry.

“It’s bigger than aviation. This is one of the precursors to the modern credit card, regardless of its intent,” says F. Robert van der Linden, curator of Air Transportation and Special Purpose Aircraft at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The museum has a vintage Air Travel Card from the 1950s in its “America by Air” collection, although the card is not currently on display due to a major renovation of the gallery, slated for completion in 2022.

The Air Travel Card evolved into the Universal Air Travel Plan (UATP), a payment network owned and operated by the global airline industry, which connects airlines to one another and their best customers: business travelers. The UATP card is now accepted by more than 300 merchants, including both airlines and travel agencies.

When that first Air Travel Card was issued over 80 years ago, a numbering system that identifies the issuer of the card was created. It was adopted by the industry and is still in use today – which explains why UATP cards, the first ones on the market, start with the number one.

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