Remembering U.S. Airlines That Are No Longer With Us

Earlier today, the CEO of Boeing said a major U.S. airline “most likely” will go away as a result of the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic.

Today Show host Savannah Guthrie asked Dave Calhoun, “Do you think there might be a major U.S. carrier that just has to go out of business?”

His response, “Yes, most likely.”

Neither qualified what was meant by “major U.S. airline.” The government definition refers to airlines with over $1 billion in annual revenues.

In other words, while the word “major” may have insinuated American, United, Delta, Southwest, airlines like Hawaiian, Allegiant, and Spirit all qualify based on official measurements.

Either way, the CEO’s comments, combined with various plane spotter videos I’ve been watching on Youtube (Don’t judge!) during this stay-at-home period, reminded me of some of the well-known, now gone domestic carriers I’ve enjoyed.

Air Cal

Air Cal historic fleet

Air Cal offered frequent flights and extra legroom on flights along the U.S. West Coast.

Pintrest

Founded: 1967

Last Flight: 1987

Along with Pacific Southwest, or PSA, Air Cal was part of the post-deregulation wave of mergers in the 1980s. Offering only one-class, Air Cal was popular for its frequent flights along the West Coast featuring extra legroom. After its acquisition in 1987 by American Airlines, I remember AMR’s then CEO Robert Crandall saying he believed business travelers would choose frequency over a bit more space. Shortly after that more seat rows were installed, although the typical 32 to 33 inches of space between rows in coach at the time was about 10% more generous than current. And, oh by the way, the seats actually had padding.

America West Airlines

US AIRWAYS America West

America West and US Airways jets taxi at Sky Harbor International Airport Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005 file … [+] photo in Phoenix. The new US Airways Group Inc., formed by Tempe-based America West Airlines’ acquisition of the old US Airways last year, is beginning its biggest push yet to operate under a single name. Former America West reservations agents are beginning to answer the phone “US Airways” and gate agents and flight crews will start referring to all flights as US Airways flights, mentioning that some are operated by America West. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Founded: 1981

Last Flight: 2005

One of the longest surviving babies of deregulation, its Cactus call sign lasted even after the name America West disappeared during a combination with USAir and until the merger of USAirways and American Airlines. After starting life making short hops from its Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport base with used Boeing 737s, it expanded to the East Coast with longer range 757s, adding first class.

Among the highlights I recall was its night hub at Las Vegas with flights arriving and departing in the wee hours of the morning, the sound of one armed bandits clanging in the background.

At one point, America West added 747-200s after winning an international route to Nagoya, which it served from Phoenix via Honolulu. While that didn’t work out, it then used the jumbos on flights from New York to Las Vegas and Phoenix, a far cry from the narrow-body jets airlines fly today on even the longest domestic routes. Best of all, for top tier members of its FlightFund frequent flyer program, upgrades to those nice sleeper seats were free.

Continental Airlines

Continental Airlines Gordon Bethune

Continental Airlines Chairman and Chief Executive Gordon Bethune poses for a photograph next to a … [+] model of a plane and a placard announcing the company’s daily nonstop flights to New York, in Hong Kong on Friday, March 2, 2001. Launching the first nonstop passenger flights between New York and Hong Kong, Continental Airlines took a swipe at the standard of service offered by rival United Airlines, which starts competing on the route next month. (AP Photo/Anat Givon)

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Founded: 1934

Last Flight: 2012

For those of you who have been around long enough, Continental’s history can probably be divided into three parts. Its pre-deregulation period as “the proud bird with the golden tail,” replete with onboard pubs on its DC-10 flights. Then there was the tumultuous term under the ownership of Texas Air Corporation and Frank Lorenzo, and finally a renaissance when a former Boeing executive named Gordon Bethune was appointed CEO.

Under Bethune, a rated pilot, the airline went from “worst to first,” the title of his book detailing the turnaround. It was one of the first U.S. airlines to ditch international first class for a hybrid product. BusinessFirst offered first class style loungers and gourmet meals for business class pricing, making it a favorite with both road warriors and company accountants. It was one of the last U.S. airlines to offer free pillows, blankets and meals on domestic flights in the back of the plane.

Bethune also helped make Newark Airport into a major international hub to rival JFK. It ended when he left in 2004 and the airline merged in 2010 with United Airlines.

Eastern Air Lines

Founded: 1926

Last Flight: 1991

Like several of the best known, no longer with us U.S. airlines, the Eastern brand had a second go. Of course, it’s the original many will remember, including its ad campaign featuring astronaut turned CEO Frank Borman that followed its 1983 employee stock ownership initiative.

In addition being one of the largest U.S. airlines at its peak, its innovations included hourly shuttle flights connecting New York with Boston and Washington D.C. You didn’t need a reservation, and for a time, if you showed up and the flight was full, you didn’t have to wait. They put on an extra aircraft.

Eastern was also a launch customer for the Lockheed L-1010. After one of its Tristar jets crashed into the Florida Everglades on approach to Miami International Airport, Borman, then a vice president with Eastern, hopped on a helicopter and spent part of the long night helping rescuers, wading through the swamp.

Later in life, Eastern became a victim of harsh battles between organized labor and management leading to its acquisition by Lorenzo’s Texas Air Corp., where it entered bankruptcy and eventually ceased operations.

As a young reporter, I covered Eastern back in those days. Attending a travel conference in Miami one year, I was invited on a sightseeing flight for delegates across the Florida Keys on one of its WhisperJet branded 727s. Long before Instagram and Youtube made it easy to virtually travel the world, I can still remember the turquoise waters and reefs as we flew low along the 113-mile Overseas Highway.

However, my earliest memory was flying on an L-1011 in the early 1970s to a newly opened theme park that had sprung out of Central Florida swamp called Disney World. At the time there was a special family section on the plane. For a long period, the airline also featured a ride called If You Had Wings at the park. In fact, it was the airline’s wide promotion of the Disney’s Florida outpost that helped put it on the map.

Midway Airlines (1 and 2)

Midway Airlines

Midway 1 above and Midway 2 below. The first edition took its name from Chicago’s Midway Airport.

Pintrest

Founded: 1976 and 1993

Last Flights: 1991 and 2003

The first edition took its name from Chicago’s then little used Midway International Airport, promising travelers a more pleasant experience than bustling O’Hare.

Like other start-ups of the period, Midway featured used aircraft, in this case a fleet of DC-9s and 737s. Like many, it was a victim of expanding too fast at the wrong time. It shut down in 1991 citing high fuel prices and lower demand from the first Gulf War. At the time, it was the nation’s 12th largest airline. As I recall, it offered free drinks and decent meals in its all coach cabins.

The second edition served as a way for American Airlines to maintain its presence after winding down a small hub at Raleigh-Durham. It shut in the wake of the downturn that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Midwest Express

Founded: 1983

Last Flight: 2010

An outgrowth of Kimberly-Clark’s flight department, Midwest Express delighted business travelers using its Milwaukee hub in the late last century, offering first class seating for everyone. Instead of a 2 by 3 configuration in its MD-80s and DC-9s, all rows were 2 by 2, with no middle seats. Coach fares included hot meals and baked on board chocolate chip cookies. Its “best care in the air” service was long gone before it was swallowed by Frontier Airlines in 2010.

Pan Am

PAN AMERICAN 747

Workers are dwarfed by the immensity of these Boeing 747 jumbo jets nearing completion at the … [+] company’s plant at Everett, Wash. Pan American World Airways was to get the first two delivered under provisional Federal Aviation Administration certificates so the line could check them out on its routes while awaiting others fully certified early in 1970. (AP Photo)

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Founded: 1927

Last Fight: 1991

“You can’t beat the experience,” Pan American World Airways claimed in advertisements. But deregulation and mismanagement doomed the Blue Ball, which ushered in the jet age and helped bring air travel to the masses.

Both the 707 and 747 were built largely based on the commitment of Pan Am’s founder and long serving CEO Juan Trippe. The network he created spanned the world, providing for growth in global trade and tourism in the post World Ward II era.

A seeming renaissance was sidetracked by the terrorist bombing of Flight 103 en route from London to New York days before Christmas in 1988 killing all aboard and then later the Gulf War. I remember hearing about the crash while out after work with friends at a Manhattan bar. News didn’t move quite as fast back then. It was only days later I learned that the father of one of my high school classmates had been aboard.

In its latter days, the airline couldn’t compete with the large domestic hub-and-spoke networks and shiny new planes of American, United, and Delta or their powerful computer systems. Still, a visit to the Kennedy Airpor Worldport provided up close views through floor to ceiling windows that literally put you literally nose to nose with the Queen of the Skies.

People Express

PEOPLE EXPRESS

People Express airline’s executive Mr. Harold Pereti, who accompanied the president, Mr. Donald Burr … [+] (left), on the inaugural flight in front of the Boeing 747 shortly after arrival at Gatwick Airport outside London, May 27, 1983. People Express. Flights were priced at $99 each way. (AP Photo)

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Founded: 1981

Last Flight: 1987

Despite its short life, People Express may have done more than any airline to highlight the opportunity for low-cost, no frills airline flights.

New Yorkers would scan its full page ads listing dozens of cities and fares to figure out where they could fly away for the weekend, sometimes for as little as $19. College kids would come home with bags of dirty laundry for a weekend of mom’s home cooking and clean clothes. Guilty! When it launched flights to Europe, they were priced under $100 each way. You could even pay for your ticket on the plane. Everything was extra, including check baggage and meals. Sounds familiar, right?

A victim of expanding too fast and price wars as the major airlines used their sophisticated computer systems to match its low fares with limited inventory, it was purchased by Texas Air and merged into Continental Airlines. The People Express Newark base was the foothold for what is now a major hub for United Airlines.

TWA

Founded: 1930

Last Flight: 2001

Alongside Pan Am, TWA at one point was among the largest U.S. airlines. Where the Blue Ball didn’t fly, TWA’s crisp red striped aircraft could been seen around-the-world. Over its life, it came under the control of both Howard Hughes and much later Carl Icahn.

Like every airline mentioned in this story except Air Cal, its history included at least one visit to the bankruptcy courts, although twice in its case.

Its heritage lives on at the eponymous named hotel that’s grown out of its former hub at JFK. My earliest memory involved being able to board one of its 747s and get a brief tour after accompanying my mom to pick up dad, who had just arrived back from a business trip. In those days you could greet friends at the gate, and when pilots or flight attendants spotted an eager youngster, it wasn’t uncommon to get special access.

During the 1990s TWA remained one of my favorite airlines. Its generous frequent flier program offered plentiful free upgrades, and it offered both first and business class on many domestic flights. On my trips to Hawaii, I would connect through St. Louis so I could fly on its 747 nonstops, often in the nose of the plane. The hub, no longer in existence, and the airline were absorbed by American Airlines in 2001.

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