United Airlines has commemorated its 85th anniversary by unveiling an Airbus A320 painted in the airline's 1970s-era "Friend Ship" livery at an employee celebration...

United Airlines has commemorated its 85th anniversary by unveiling an Airbus A320 painted in the airline’s 1970s-era “Friend Ship” livery at an employee celebration at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

“We are proud to celebrate United’s 85th anniversary with the more than 85,000 co-workers and thousands of retirees who have built the world’s leading airline,” said Jeff Smisek, United Airlines’ president and chief executive officer, at the ceremony. United Airlines and Continental Airlines merged in May 2010 under the new holding company United Continental Holdings, Inc.

Employee celebrations continue throughout the week as the Friend Ship visits other United and Continental Airlines hub airports, including Denver International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, and Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport, the airline’s largest hub following its merger with Continental.

This side-on photograph gives a good idea of the 'Friend Ship' livery which United Airlines used in the 19070s. The airline's employees selected the color scheme to be specially painted on an Airbus A320 to commemorate the airline's 85th anniversary on April 6, 2011

Last fall, United employees selected the Friend Ship, which features stripes of deep red and sky blue and a regal star pattern, from United’s historical liveries, as the special livery they wanted to commemorate United’s 85th anniversary.

“The heart of my experience at United has been working with the people who make this airline great,” said Jack Lampe, a 51-year veteran of United and Capital Airlines, which merged with United in 1961. During his career, Lampe performed most airport operations functions, and is widely credited for leading the industry in anti-icing capabilities. “We can be proud of our accomplishments and the service we’ve delivered for the past 85 years.”

United’s history began on April 6, 1926, when a small Swallow biplane owned by Walter Varney completed the first airmail delivery, landing to cheering crowds in Nevada after a flight across a harsh, mountainous route. Varney was among the first aviators to recognize the business potential of air travel.

United Airlines painted this Airbus A320 in the carrier's 1970's 'Friend Ship' livery to commemorate the carrier's 85th anniversary on April 6, 2011

Varney then founded Varney Air Service in 1926 after acquiring an airmail contract. He later sold the company to United Aircraft and Transport, which would change its name to United Air Lines in 1933.

In 1934, Varney and his business partner Louis Mueller founded Varney Speed Lines, which was sold and renamed Continental Airlines in 1937.  Both airlines would eventually become industry giants with service to hundreds of points in the U.S. and around the globe.

Then, in May 2010, United and Continental merged to become the world’s largest airline.

Employees selected United Airlines' 1970s 'Friend Ship' livery as a special color scheme to be applied to this Airbus A320 to commemorate the airline's 85th anniversary, which was on April 6, 2011

In 1926, fewer than 6,000 Americans paid to travel by air. By 1930, about 170,000 paying passengers took to the sky each year. Boeing’s tri-motored Model 80 carried up to 18 people in an enclosed cabin – a step up from only a few years earlier when two passengers rode on top of mailbags, wearing parachutes and goggles. In 1936, people could fly coast to coast, allowing at least 20 hours for the trip, but generally bought tickets at the door of the aircraft just before takeoff.

By comparison, notes United, today the merged United and Continental fly more than 150 million customers each year – equal to about half the population of the U.S. – and travelers can book flights on United from virtually anywhere. United’s largest aircraft, the 747-400, seats 374 travelers and offers flat-bed seats, personal inflight entertainment, hot meals and other amenities.

The new United says it features the world’s most comprehensive route network, offering customers access to destinations on six continents and nonstop or one-stop service from virtually anywhere in the United States. United operates 5,675 daily departures from nearly 375 airports.