Unforgotten: The lost airlines of the U.S.

Dec 10, 2019

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This is the first article in a two-part series about defunct airlines.

Nothing is a more sobering testament to the precariousness and unpredictability of the airline business than going through the long, long list of airlines that no longer exist. It can also be nostalgic and fun, so let’s do it.

Below is a look at some of America’s most colorful and influential carriers from the past. We’ll start our timeline in the 1960s, after the advent of the jetliner. And no, not everyone is here. I’ve left out Aloha, Midwest Express, Midway, Muse Air, New York Air, Reno Air and ValuJet, among others. As fondly as these companies are remembered by some, let’s focus instead on what I’ll call “classic” carriers: those of aero-historical or cultural significance, and whose creation (or demise) in some way helped shape the industry.

Many of the names that follow were “regional” airlines, in a sense that no longer exists. They were independent carriers that called a section of the country home. Often that section was the airline’s namesake state or mountain range: Florida, Texas, California, or Piedmont and the Ozarks. Or it could be a compass point, as in the case of Western and Southern. Like the railway lines of old, they had distinctly geographic identities. And over time most were integrated, one way or the other, into today’s Big Three legacy carriers: American, Delta and United.     

Others, including some of the biggest names in aviation, failed to survive in a competitive climate that changed too quickly for them, or went bankrupt through their own mismanagement. TWA, Pan Am and Braniff had networks that spanned the globe. Eastern was, for a time, the largest airline in the world.

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The airline industry in 2019 is perhaps more stable than it’s ever been. But the sheer number of carriers that have, over the past several decades, departed to that big tarmac in the sky is a reminder of how quickly things can change, and how susceptible the business is to outside forces, from wars to recessions to hostile CEOs.

The accompanying photos are from my personal collection of airline postcards. I’ve chosen those that, to me, most quintessentially represent each carrier.

Pan Am

We start with Pan Am because we have to. Because no other airline comes close. We’ve got a paragraph’s worth of space to encapsulate how and why Pan Am was history’s most important airline, which is pretty much impossible. Let’s just say there was Pan American World Airways, in a class alone, and then every other airline that has existed. The carrier’s long history — seven decades of staggering achievement and global influence, punctuated at times by unforgettable tragedy — is in many ways the story of aviation itself. Its demise was long and painful, the airline selling off its Asian and European routes (to United and Delta respectively) until the end finally came in December, 1991.

Pan Am introduced the 747 to the world in 1970
Pan Am introduced the 747 to the world in 1970.

TWA

A distant runner-up to Pan Am, but a runner-up nonetheless. For 70 years, Trans World Airways was a globally-known brand with its heart and home in the American Midwest. When we think of TWA we think of Paris, Rome or Cairo. We also think of Akron, Kansas City, and of course St. Louis. And like Pan Am, things ended in a long, protracted collapse marked by heavy losses, CEO turnover and route surrenders, until American Airlines took what was left in 2001. Vestiges of the company survive to this day, including Eero Saarinen’s landmark terminal at JFK, which reopened this year as a hotel.

By the end of the 1970s TWA operated more than 80 Boeing 707s.
By the end of the 1970s TWA operated more than 80 Boeing 707s.

Braniff

“Flying Colors” was its tagline. More than any company of its time, Dallas-based Braniff was a name associated with style and sophistication. Its jets were painted in a candy-shop array, from glossy purples to pastel blues. Cabin interiors and uniforms were designed by Halston and Emilio Pucci, and Alexander Calder was hired to hand-paint a Douglas DC-8. The layout of Braniff’s headquarters campus at DFW was later used as a model for those at Google and Apple. Its South American route system was the largest of any airline, and from 1978 to 1980 it was the only U.S. carrier ever to operate Concorde — albeit in a loaner operation with Air France and British Airways (Concordes were crewed by Braniff pilots and flight attendants, but never wore a Braniff livery). Alas, a badly planned expansion scheme in the early ‘80s quickly drove the company out of business. Braniff’s final flight — a 747 from Honolulu to DFW —  took place in May, 1982.

One of Braniff’s pastel-hued 727s.
One of Braniff’s pastel-hued 727s.

National

Dating back to 1934, National connected Northeastern cities with sunbird markets in Florida, plus several coast-to-coast routes. Four cities in Europe were served as well. National’s “Sundrome” terminal at JFK airport, near where JetBlue sits today, was designed by I.M. Pei. Hungry for a domestic presence in a fast-changing, deregulated marketplace, Pan Am purchased National in 1980. “Pan Am Goes National!” the ads sang. But the two carriers’ cultures mixed poorly, and the decision was ultimately seen as a disastrous one for Pan Am.

A National DC-10 in the company’s elegant yellow and orange.
A National DC-10 in the company’s elegant yellow and orange.

Eastern

Where to start? From 1926 to 1991, Eastern Air Lines was one of the country’s dominant carriers, and for a while it carried more people than anyone in the world save for Aeroflot. It was launch customer of the Boeing 727 and 757, and was the first American carrier to fly an Airbus. Its Shuttle operation, connecting Boston, New York and Washington, was beloved by business and leisure flyers alike. Under pressure from budget carriers, things began going downhill in the early ‘80s, then got really bad after former astronaut Frank Borman sold the carrier to Frank Lorenzo in 1986. What happened under Lorenzo, from the sale of the Shuttle to Donald Trump, to the Machinists’ lockout and ensuing strike in 1989, is well documented and one of the saddest stories in aviation, culminating in Eastern’s final flight on January 19th, 1991.

Few paint jobs were prettier than Eastern’s mid-1970s scheme, displayed here on a 727.
Few paint jobs were prettier than Eastern’s mid-1970s scheme, displayed here on a 727.

Continental

Despite a long and storied history that began in 1934, with a mail route connecting El Paso, Texas, and Pueblo, Colorado, the thing many remember most about Continental Airlines is its controversial takeover by Frank Lorenzo (him again) in 1981, and the bankruptcy that followed. With the exception of Eastern, perhaps no carrier is more closely associated with contention and labor strife. But unlike Eastern’s story, this one ended well. Lorenzo eventually retired, and under the stewardship of Gordon Bethune, Continental would grow into one of the nation’s most successful airlines, with a route network that reached throughout Europe, South America, and deep into the Pacific. In 2012 the airline merged with United.

A Continental 727 in the ‘70s-era livery designed by Saul Bass.
A Continental 727 in the ‘70s-era livery designed by Saul Bass.

Northeast

Northeast Airlines had been a New England fixture since 1931, when it began as Boston-Maine Airways. The carrier’s DC-3s, DC-6s and twin-prop Convairs linked more than two dozen cities across the region. Later, 727s and DC-9s, nicknamed “Yellowbirds,” would connect Boston and New York to cities in Florida, the Bahamas, and westward to Los Angeles. Northeast merged with Delta in 1972.

Northeast was the launch customer of the Boeing 727-200.
Northeast was the launch customer of the Boeing 727-200.

Northwest

Northwest was formed in Detroit in 1926 as a mail carrier. It later became one of only two U.S. carriers with a significant presence in Asia, its routes there dating back to the period after World War II. Hence the name “Northwest Orient,” as it was known for several years. From a hub in Tokyo the airline flew to Manila, Bangkok, Taipei, Hong Kong, Okinawa, Saipan and Guam, among many other spots. It later expanded into Scandinavia and Western Europe. Northwest’s collaboration with KLM was the first of the transoceanic code-share partnerships that have since become so common. In 2008 the airline announced a merger with Delta, and the name disappeared shortly thereafter. Despite the Asia routes having mostly been abandoned, Delta’s large operation at Amsterdam – Schiphol is a Northwest legacy, as are its hubs in Detroit, Minneapolis, and Seattle.

Northwest became the world’s largest operator of the 747.
Northwest became the world’s largest operator of the 747.

Western

Established in 1925, Western Airlines was the oldest major carrier in the United States.  With hubs at LAX, Denver and Salt Lake City, its network reached Mexico, Hawaii, and even London, before merging with Delta in 1987. Delta’s SLC hub is a Western vestige.

Western’s jet fleet included 707s, 727s, and DC-10s like this one.
Western’s jet fleet included 707s, 727s, and DC-10s like this one.

Piedmont

Piedmont got its start in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1949. Eventually its jets and turboprops would connect major and minor cities all along the eastern seaboard and the Midwest. By the middle of the1980s Piedmont flew to 95 U.S. destinations. Just in time to be acquired by USAir in 1989.

One of Piedmont’s “Pacemaker” 737s.
One of Piedmont’s “Pacemaker” 737s.

Allegheny / USAir

After deregulation, Allegheny Airlines, long a player in the eastern half of the United States, thought  its name was maybe a little too provincial for the nationwide expansion it had in mind. So it changed it to USAir. Later it became US Airways, along the way gobbling up PSA and Piedmont, before merging with America West and then American Airlines.

Allegheny’s (later USAir) DC-9 fleet numbered more than 50.
Allegheny’s (later USAir) DC-9 fleet numbered more than 50.

Republic Airlines

Let’s do this as a four-in-one, because it isn’t really Republic we want to talk about, it’s the three smaller carriers that came together to form it: North Central, based in Minneapolis; Southern Airways, from Atlanta; and Hughes Airwest, which had a hub in San Francisco (and yes, was owned by Howard Hughes). These three carriers, which predominantly flew DC-9s on limited routes within their own areas of the country, would eventually join forces: North Central and Southern merged in 1979 to form Republic, which then purchased Hughes Airwest a year later. Republic itself didn’t last very long, becoming part of Northwest in 1986. Northwest, as we know, was eventually absorbed by Delta. Until just a few years ago Delta was flying a number of antique DC-9s that bore the “NC” suffix in their registrations, harkening back to the days of North Central and its mallard tails.

Ozark

At its height, Ozark Air Lines flew a 50-strong DC-9 fleet to almost 60 cities from its base in St. Louis. The airline’s logo, featuring three swallows, was meant to suggest punctuality — a reference to the legendary swallows of San Juan Capistrano, in California. In 1986 Ozark was purchased by fellow St. Louis resident TWA.

Ozark’s handsome livery was ahead of its time.
Ozark’s handsome livery was ahead of its time.

Frontier

For 26 years, Denver-based Frontier Airlines provided scheduled services to cities throughout the American West. In 1973, it hired the first woman to fly jets for a major U.S. airline, Emily Warner. But the years after deregulation were tough for Frontier. Between 1980 and 1985 it brought in five different CEO in efforts to stave off bankruptcy. People Express acquired Frontier in 1985, allowing it to continue operating as an independent carrier, but within a year it was out of business, its remaining assets taken by Continental in 1986. Frontier’s name was recycled in 1994, and it still flies, as a successful low-fare airline.

A Frontier 737
A Frontier 737.

People Express

Founded by a team inspired by the British entrepreneur Freddie Laker (more on him in the next installment), People Express was a Newark-based no-frills upstart that began operations in 1981. Four years later it purchased the troubled Frontier Airlines in an attempt to grow its network. The airlines, stylized on its airplanes as PEOPLExpress, also launched long-haul flights to London and Brussels using 747-200s. (The country’s first female 747 captain, Beverly Lynn Burns, was a People Express captain.) But Frontier quickly collapsed, with all that investment and expansion leaving the airline drowning in debt. In 1986 it was bought by Frank Lorenzo’s Texas Air Corporation, which at the time was running Continental. Lorenzo kept what was left of Frontier, plus the Newark hub, folding them into Continental, and basically threw the rest away. Today, United’s busy operation at EWR owes its origins to People Express.

One of PEOPLExpress’ coffee-colored 737-100s.
One of PEOPLExpress’ coffee-colored 737-100s.

Air California

Air California, which first flew in 1967, was an intra-state, high-frequency carrier with a fleet of Lockheed Electras and 737s. It became known as AirCal before merging with American Airlines in 1987.

Air California’s distinctive colors on a 737.
Air California’s distinctive colors on a 737.

Air Florida

Air Florida existed for 13 years, launching in 1971 with an old pair of 707s before growing into a well-known low-cost airline with a route map that stretched up and down the East Coast, to the Caribbean, and to seven cities in Europe. But as with ValuJet later on, the story of Air Florida became defined not by its successes or where it flew, but by a tragic accident. In ValuJet’s case it was the Everglades disaster in 1996; for Air Florida it was the crash of flight 90 into the Potomac in 1982. Reeling from the accident and saddled with losses, Air Florida declared bankruptcy in 1984, ceasing operations that summer.

Air Florida’s handsome blue and green on a 737-200.
Air Florida’s handsome blue and green on a 737-200.

PSA

This fondly remembered, San Diego-based budget carrier dubbed itself “The World’s Friendliest Airline,” complete with a smile painted onto the nose of its planes. Among its biggest admirers was Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest, who based his own airline’s culture and expansion on the model of PSA. But while Southwest went on to become a powerhouse, PSA disappeared in 1988 after acquisition by USAir.

The PSA smile was a modest, unassuming one: an airplane just happy to be an airplane.
The PSA smile was a modest, unassuming one: an airplane just happy to be an airplane.

Texas International

Formerly known as Trans-Texas Airways, this airline flew from 1944 until 1982. Our friend Frank Lorenzo bought the company in 1972, and this is where his holding company, Texas Air Corporation, got its name. Though it never flew anything bigger than a DC-9,Texas International went on to serve 48 cities in the U.S. and Mexico, primarily out of Houston and Dallas. Its frequent-flyer program, unveiled in 1979, was the industry’s first. Lorenzo used Texas Air to buy Continental in ’82, and folded the two together.

Lone Star blues. A Texas International DC-9.
Lone Star blues. A Texas International DC-9.

Flying Tigers

Named in honor the World War II fighting unit, the Flying Tiger Line became America’s first all-freight scheduled airline in 1949. By the ‘80s it was the largest cargo carrier in the world, serving nearly 60 cities on six continents with a fleet 727s, 747s and stretch DC-8s. When Tigers was sold to Federal Express in 1988, one of the coolest names in airline history ceased to be.

A Flying Tigers 747F.
A Flying Tigers 747F.

 

The takeaway here is that nothing in aviation is permanent.

And as we can see, airline family trees can be quite a tangled affair. What a crazy amalgamation American Airlines is, for example: the DNA of TWA, Allegheny, Piedmont, Air California, PSA, Ozark and America West, all mixed in with its own.

And while we’re here, how about a shout-out to our long-lost charter and supplemental airlines? At least in our part of the world, this entire category of airline has all but vanished. Back in the the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, however, charter outfits carried millions of Americans on non-scheduled services to cities around the globe. The big four were World Airways, Capital, ONA (Overseas National) and Trans International (later Transamerica, owned by the insurance giant that lived in San Francisco’s iconic triangular skyscraper).

Military and cargo charters were flown as well, and there were occasional forays into scheduled or seasonal routes. When I was a teenager, these airlines’ DC-8s, DC-10s and 747s were a common sight at Boston-Logan. Later it was companies like Arrow Air and American Trans Air. Then it was nothing.  All of these names are gone, the charter model no longer viable in an era of super-cheap tickets and scheduled flights going pretty much everywhere.

A World Airways DC-8 Series 60.
A World Airways DC-8 Series 60.

 

We should take a moment, too, and  pay tribute to the many lost “commuter” carriers. Nowadays, using jets, the various Express and Connection regionals connect major hub to smaller cities under the banner and auspices of the major carriers, which in some cases own them outright. The two are often indistinguishable. It wasn’t always like this. In the old days, the country was home to dozens of small independent carriers that, for the most part, operated in their own colors and under their own names, using small propeller planes.

Many of these companies, decades old, had names and cultures that reflected the local character. In my neck of the woods we had Bar Harbor, PBA, Pilgrim and Air New England. Some of you might remember Prinair. Based in San Juan, this company flew colorfully painted, four-propeller Riley Herons throughout the Caribbean. Or Chalk’s, down in Florida, whose seaplanes dated back to 1917, making it the oldest airline on Earth. This is another category of airline that barely exists any more — Cape Air being a notable exception — and its loss leaves commercial aviation that much less interesting and colorful.

A Prinair DeHavilland Heron
A Prinair DeHavilland Heron (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

It’s funny, too, how many airline names have since been recycled, either out of laziness or to capitalize on a predecessor’s reputation and brand recognition. Today you’ll find a Doppelganger Republic, a Frontier, a Piedmont and a PSA, all unrelated to the originals. At one time or another we had two different reincarnations of Pan Am, two Braniffs, two Nationals and an Eastern. When USAir purchased Piedmont and PSA in the 1980s, these brands had been so admired that a decision was made to keep the names alive. They were given to a pair of USAir Express affiliates. Suddenly, “Pacific Southwest Airlines” found itself headquartered in Ohio, while at airports along the Eastern Seaboard passengers could (and still can) once again step aboard Piedmont. Sort of.

In the next installment: the lost airlines of Europe, Asia, and beyond.

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and the host of askthepilot.com.  His book, Cockpit Confidential, is a New York Times bestseller.

All images are scanned postcards from the author’s collection, except where indicated. 

Featured photo by Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive

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