Despite being little more than a century old, aviation has inspired some pretty impressive museums.
From the Wright Brothers to supersonic travel, there are no shortage of opportunities for aviation enthusiasts to immerse themselves in the epic wonder of flight and its fascinating history.
Yet only a relatively small part of these museums and exhibits are devoted to the one segment of the broader aviation world that has had, perhaps, the most influence on everyday people’s lives: airlines.
Although it would take decades for air travel to become the mass market item it is today, the origins of commercial aviation can be traced back to very early years of powered flight.
It didn’t take long for airlines to appear after Orville and Wilbur Wright kick-started the aviation era at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Amazingly, some of those early pioneers of commercial flight are still with us and going strong.
With airlines such as KLM and Avianca celebrating their centenary this year, interest is greater than ever in preserving airline heritage. Enthusiasts and volunteers around the world have contributed to creating some fantastic museums for the public to enjoy. Here are 10 of the best.
TWA Museum, Kansas City, Missouri
The inauguration of the TWA hotel at New York’s JFK airport made quite a splash (and not just because of the infinity pool with unimpeded runway views).
What many don’t know, though, is that this iconic American airline, which ceased operations in 2001, has its own dedicated museum a few thousand miles west, in Kansas City, Missouri. The Mid-Western city played a key role in the early days of TWA, before it moved its main hubs elsewhere, to Saint Louis and New York.
The TWA museum is a rather modest affair. It’s located on one side of an office building right on the edge of Kansas City Downtown Airport (not to be confused with Kansas City International (MCI), the city’s main airport).
Posters, uniforms and all sort of memorabilia pile up in the few rooms occupied by the museum. The star of the collection: a beautifully restored Lockheed Electra aircraft that can be visited on the adjacent hangar.
TWA Museum, 10 Richards Rd No. 110, Kansas City, MO 64116, United States; +1 816 234 1011
Airline History Museum, Kansas City, Missouri
A visit to the TWA museum can easily be combined with a trip to the Airline History Museum, which is located just 300 meters away, in a hangar on the far side of Kansas City Downtown airport. Despite their physical proximity, though, the two museums are not connected.
The National Airline History Museum is a small private museum which keeps several aircraft on display.
The highlight of its collection is a Lockheed L-1049 Constellation which has starred in several Hollywood movies, including Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film “The Aviator,” featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Beckinsale and Cate Blanchett.
Airline History Museum, Hangar 9 at Kansas City Downtown Airport, 201 NW Lou Holland Drive, Kansas City, Missouri 64116; +1 816 421 3401
C. R. Smith Museum (American Airlines), Fort Worth, Texas
American Airlines’ museum is named after Cyrus Rowlett Smith, the airline’s president for 34 years and widely considered the powerhouse behind AA becoming one of the world’s largest airlines.
The museum opened in 1993 but underwent a major renovation in 2018, with the exhibitions now laid out so that all different roles within the airline, from senior management to baggage handlers, are duly represented.
The highlight of the museum is a Douglas DC-3 aircraft, but also worthy of note are the large collection of uniforms, a full MD-80 cockpit and an interactive mockup of the airline’s control center.
Many of the exhibits are interactive so that visitors can learn hands-on what it takes to run an airline.
C. R. Smith Museum, 4601 Highway 360, Fort Worth, TX 76155, United States; +1 817 967 1560
Delta Flight Museum, Atlanta, Georgia
Fittingly for one of the world’s oldest – and largest – airlines, Delta has its own museum next to its Atlanta-Hartsfield hub.
The initiative started in the 1990s thanks to a group of enthusiastic employees and retirees who sought and acquired one of Delta’s historical DC-3s.
With the years the collection kept growing – it now holds a Boeing 767, a Boeing 757 and the first Boeing 747-400 to ever be built, as well as several other smaller historical airplanes.
Remarkably, the preservation of many of these aircraft was made possible through voluntary contributions from Delta’s staff.
Visitors can find also other items related to Delta’s past, such as an exact replica of its base in Monroe, Louisiana, as it looked in the 1930s.
Delta Flight Museum, 1060 Delta Boulevard, Atlanta, GA 30354, United States; +1 404-715-7886