Takeoffs and Landings: Airlines Lost in Time

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Pan Am was a name ubiquitous with travel. At its pinnacle, it was the largest U.S. airline. With 150 jets flying to 86 countries on every continent except Antarctica, it seemed invulnerable. Unfortunately, even great things can crash and burn, and the 1970s oil crisis triggered a descent into bankruptcy and closure for this transport giant.

However, many airlines never even get to experience such highs. For some, their lows have left them all but forgotten. These airlines tried to make it big but ultimately ended up just like Pan Am.

Carnival Airlines 1988-1998

Fun, affordable, and successful cruise line? Yes. Successful air travel? Not so much. When Carnival Cruise Lines purchased Pacific Interstate Airlines in 1988, they launched Carnival Air Lines to connect the Eastern Seaboard to the Bahamas, Haiti and Puerto Rico with quick and convenient air travel.

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By 1996, they were flying routes between 22 airports, including Miami to Los Angeles, with a fleet of 25 planes and approximately 1350 employees. However, a 1997 merger with the reincarnated Pan American Airways was waylaid by bankruptcy, resulting in another buyout and ultimately closure of all related entities in 2008.

Hooters Air 2003-2006

While the main company may be known for its wings, Hooters Air struggled with takeoff. When restaurant owner Robert Brooks bought Pace Airlines in December 2002, he quickly envisioned a fleet of “flying billboards” for his chain. With seven planes, Hooters Air connected 18 airports to the company’s Myrtle Beach hub in hopes of bringing casual and tournament golfers to the area’s more than 100 championship golf courses.

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Marketing itself as a “club class” carrier for golf enthusiasts, the airline provided business class luxury at a low-fare with complimentary meals served by Hooters Girls. It resulted in a $40 million loss and closure in 2006.

PeoplExpress Airlines 1981-1987

PeoplExpress was THE low-cost air carrier before companies like Spirit and Frontier. Utilizing a simplified fare structure, passengers paid for their flight in cash while on-board. One carry-on bag was free, and each checked bag cost $3, making PeoplExpress the first airline to charge for checked luggage.

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Within two years the airline was a sold-out success and began offering non-stop travel from Newark to London for just $149 one-way. Unfortunately, an acquisition spree in the mid-80s and lowered fares from their competition left PeoplExpress with insurmountable debt, requiring their sale to the Texas Air Corporation.

Monarch Airlines 1946-1950

Formed in 1946 by F.W. Bonfils and flight school operator Ray M. Wilson, Monarch Airlines flew commuters from Denver to Durango, Colorado. As a result of being based in a cold climate, they pioneered all-weather operations by utilizing their own navigation system.

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Within two years, the company was sharing maintenance and sales services with Challenger Airlines. The two companies merged with Arizona Airways to form Frontier Airlines in 1950, which flew for 36 years before economic struggles put them in bankruptcy in 1986. In 1994, former executives went on to open the new Frontier Airlines that we know today.

Sky King/Songbird Airways 1990-2017

Based in Miami, Sky King started as a charter airline in 1990 for the NBA Sacramento Kings. By 2002, 98 percent of the airline’s flights were for hockey teams, and that continued until the NHL lockout in 2005.

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Sky King operated for several companies over the years and provided flights from Florida to Cuba for touring agencies as well as others to undisclosed locations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) flights of deportees. Unable to pay their fuel bill, Sky King filed for bankruptcy in 2012 before reemerging in 2014 as Songbird Airways, which was bought out in 2017.

ValuJet 1992-1997

In its brief existence, ValuJet made a name for itself with questionable standards and dangerous cost-cutting measures. The budget airline flew used planes with undertrained workers and was already facing attempts at grounding by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when tragedy struck in 1996.

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Flight 562 crashed 10 minutes after takeoff when illegally stored hazardous materials in the cargo area caught on fire. All 110 passengers on board died, and the airline was grounded for several months. Never fully recovering, the airline merged with AirTran to change names until permanently dissolving after an acquisition by SouthWest.

Pet Airways 2009-2011

Sounding like something out of an SNL skit, Pet Airways provided air travel exclusively for animals. Owners would pay up to $1200 to transport their pest between 11 U.S. cities while tracking their pet’s journey online. “Pawsengers” were dropped off at special airport pet lounges where airline staff would give them pre-boarding walks and potty breaks before boarding them into the main cabin and checking on them every 15 minutes throughout the flight.

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The company closed in 2011, and in their own words, “We have experienced a history of losses and have yet to begin generating positive cash flows from operations.”

Central Airlines 1949-1967

Beginning as a glorified bus route, Central Airlines was a local service carrier running flights between Fort Worth, Texas and Oklahoma City with stops in Dallas and Gainsville. Eventually adding more cities and routes, Central transported around 24,000 passengers monthly.

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From 1950 to 1953, Central won four consecutive safety awards for operating without a single accident or injury, and no passengers were ever seriously injured or died aboard their flights from 1962 to 1968. Prior to its merger into Frontier Airlines (not to be confused with the same airline still flying) in 1967, nearly half of the company’s revenue was from a federal subsidy.

Family Airlines — Never Took Off

Family Airlines generated buzz as a proposed ultra-low-cost airline geared to families by advertising fares from Dallas to Los Angeles for $49 and Los Angeles to Honolulu for $89. The airline claimed it would make just as much money in advertising as it did in ticket sales by plastering every surface of their 581-seat planes with sponsored ads.

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Whether the airline ever had any actual intention of flying is unclear, as it never made it past the FAA and Department of Transportation (DOT) application phase in 1992 before CEO Barry Michaels was convicted of tax and securities fraud.

Eastern Airlines 1926-1991

Getting its start via the scandalous Spoils Conference air mail fiasco in 1930, Eastern was part of the “Big Four” legacy carriers and dominated the air travel market of the East Coast.

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Unlike its contemporaries, American, TWA and United, poor leadership and failure to adapt through deregulation lead Eastern into the ground. By 1991, the company was out of money and literally closed its doors overnight. This put 5,000 of their 18,000 employees immediately out of work and eliminated many airline jobs from the Miami and New Your City areas.

MGM Grand Air 1987- 1994

In the late 80s, MGM Mirage (now MGM Resort International) decided to enter the luxury charter airline business. Reconfiguring Douglas DC-8 and Boeing 727s into lavish premium seating aircraft, MGM Grand Air began operating VIP charter and scheduled services from Los Angeles to New York.

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After just seven years, the company’s target market was more interested in owning their own business jets, and sales had significantly declined. In 1995, the air operator’s certificate was purchased and rebranded as Champion Air — a charter carrier for sports teams and fans to travel to major sporting events.

Braniff International Airways 1928-1982

With services focused around the South, Midwest, and Latin America, Braniff International Airways suffered from many of the same issues as Eastern Airlines. Prior to ceasing flight operations, Braniff maintained one of the youngest and most modern fleets in the industry by purchasing at least eight new jets every year through the 70s.

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In pop culture, Braniff can be remembered as the production company name of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Five seconds of a Braniff Airways commercial was used as the production logo at the end of every episode from 1997 to 2006.

Leisure Air 1992-1995

Started by Harold J. Pareti (former co-founder of PeoplExpress) as a charter airline based in North Carolina, Leisure soon entered the discount travel game with coast to coast fares for $99 each way. To reduce operating costs, the airline rented airport counter space from other carriers at $150 a flight and served turkey sandwiches for every meal.

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The FAA began noticing irregularities in the maintenance records of Leisure’s planes. 1994 was marked with numerous license withdrawals and repeated flight suspensions for safety concerns until Leisure declared bankruptcy and ceased operations in 1995.

Flying Tiger Line 1945-1989

Named after the WWII fighter unit and formed by ten former American Volunteer Group (AVG) pilots, Flying Tigers was the first scheduled cargo airline in the U.S. Beginning in the 1950s, the airline chartered trans-Atlantic passenger flights. At its peak, it employed 998 pilots and 251 flight attendants, transported 594 passengers and operated Happy Tiger Records.

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In 1965, a Flying Tigers Boeing 707 was the first plane to ever circumnavigate the Earth via the poles. Airline deregulation led to sustained losses, and Flying Tigers was sold to Federal Express (now FedEx) in 1988.

Slick Airways 1946-1966

Founded as the air cargo division of the Slick Corporation in 1946, Slick Airways began commercial air travel in 1949. Within two years, it was the largest cargo airline in the United States and the first airline to operate the freighter version of the Douglas DC-6.

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As passenger airlines grew in popularity, Slick Airways began suspending all scheduled flights in 1958 and exclusively chartering for the Armed Forces. Scheduled flights were resumed in 1962 to operate the transcontinental Route 101 until 1965, when operations were permanently ceased due to poor finances.

Kiwi International Air Lines 1992-1999

In the wake of Eastern’s bankruptcy and sudden closure, thousands of airline employees were left without jobs. They called themselves KIWIs (like the flightless bird) because they were no longer flying. With a $2 million investment from a group of out-of-work Newark-based pilots, Kiwi International Air Lines was born.

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Passenger flights began in September 1992, but increased FAA surveillance following the ValuJet crash resulted in the temporary grounding of 25 percent of their fleet. This resulted in insurmountable financial loss and subsequent bankruptcy in 1999. In its short life, the airline flew 8,000,000 passengers without a single incident.

Midwest Express 1984-2010

When Kimberly-Clark (the makers of Kleenex, Kotex, and Scott) started their own private carrier for company executives in 1948, they had no plans to run scheduled passenger flights. However, airline deregulation opened that door, and Midwest Express operations began in 1984 based out of General Mitchell International Airport in Wisconsin.

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Advertising “The Best Care in the Air”, their planes featured a reduced number of seats to create more leg space, and they provided complimentary gourmet meals with warm chocolate chip cookies. The 9/11 attacks created a significant financial crisis, and the airline ceased operations in 2009 before merging with Frontier.

Air California 1967-1987

Featuring sunny yellow and orange stripes on a white plane, Air California was created with one market in mind: non-stop travel between Orange County Airport and San Francisco International Airport. Previously an unserved route, passengers could now travel quickly between the two cities on one of five daily roundtrip flights.

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Service expanded to cover more west coast destinations as the airline rebranded into AirCal in the 80s. This new look included uniforms specially designed by Mary McFadden. The company was bought out by American in 1987, and all eight of their jets were eventually sold to Southwest.

Mohawk Airlines 1945-1972

Starting small in upstate New York, Mohawk Airlines began local carrier services with single-engine planes equipped for three passengers. Within eight years, it was one of the largest regional airlines, flying two million passengers between 15 airports.

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Pioneering new standards, they were the first airline to use a computer-based reservation service and flight simulators and the first regional carrier to fly jets. They employed the first African-American flight attendant before dismissing her six months later for getting married. Labor and economic issues — including a 154-day strike — eventually sent the company under.

Independence Air 2004-2006

Born from the former Atlantic Coast Airlines, which operated feeder flights for Delta and United for over a decade, Independence relaunched as a low-cost carrier in 2004. The airline was unique in the budget market for using 50-seat regional jets, and they revolutionized Washington Dulles International Airport by bringing a million new passengers to the airport in its first three months of operation.

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However, unable to compete with the frequent flyer incentives offered by legacy carriers, financial problems began within just six months of opening. Four planes were sold or repossessed by creditors in 2005 before the company declared bankruptcy.

Champion Air 1995-2008

Dick Page of Front Page Tours purchased the airline operating certificate from MGM Grand Air in 1995 with the idea of offering charter services for sports teams and their fans to various events around the country. In addition to securing contracts to fly 13 NBA teams, the airline was the main contractor for “Con Air” — the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System.

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After being acquired by Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad and Northwest in 1997, Champion became the leading charter operator for Northwest-owned MLT Vacations. Even so, contract losses and high fuel costs lead to the company’s closure in 2008.

Air America 1950-1975

As part of Civil Air Transport, former Flying Tigers (the WWII pilots, not the airline) airlifted supplies into war-torn China. In 1950 the company was secretly bought by the U.S. government and branded as an American passenger and cargo airline advertising, “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally”.

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In actuality, they operated exclusively for the government and were managed by the CIA to support covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Activities also include running opium and heroin for the Hmong during the Laotian Civil War. After the war, the company was sold, and proceeds went to the U.S. Treasury.

Chalk’s International Airlines 1919-1980s

When Arthur “Pappy” Chalk returned from WWI in 1919, he offered flying lessons, tours of Miami and charter service to Bimini in the Bahamas from his seaplane. For seven years, he operated from a beach umbrella before building a terminal on Watson Island, where Chalk’s Flying Service operated for the next 75 years.

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Chalk was a major smuggler of alcohol from the Bahamas during Prohibition and continued to be active in the company even after selling it in 1966. Poor maintenance standards resulted in a fatal crash in 2005. Most of the fleet was grounded before the company finally closed in 2007.

Midway Airlines 1993-2003

Formed out of Jet Express in 1993, Midway began service from Chicago to New York. Competition and limited gates led to a hub transition to Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), and operations steadily grew to nearly 200 daily flights and 33 destinations.

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When Southwest began service at RDU, Midway experienced severe losses and filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on August 13, 2001. Despite attempts to continue service during restructuring, Midway did not resume operations after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A $12.5 million government bailout later that year only delayed the inevitable, and Midway shuttered permanently in 2003.

Paradise Island Airlines 1988-1989

While Chalk’s was flying tourists to Paradise Island during the day, they were limited by their seaplanes’ inability to land on water at night. Owner Merv Griffin, who also happened to own several resorts on the Bahamas island, wanted to increase tourism traffic and decided a connector airline was the ticket.

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Resorts International launched service on Paradise Island Airlines in 1989 and eventually ran flights from Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, West Plam Beach and Orlando through the 90s. Ownership changes and financial difficulties spelled doom for the airline, though, and operations ceased in May 1999.

Denver Ports of Call 1966-1992

Established in 1966, Denver Ports of Call was the largest U.S. travel club with over 66,000 members at one time. The travel club operated private domestic and international trips with flight attendants who doubled as tour guides on themed vacations.

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In need of maintenance funds, the company went public and eventually suffered a hostile takeover. New management closed the airline while trying to maintain the travel club. Now offered seats aboard connecting commercial flights instead of the luxury direct flights from before, membership dropped, and the club closed in 1994.

Evergreen International Aviation Inc. 1975-2013

Beginning as a commercial helicopter company known for aerial application of fertilizer, herbicides and fire suppressants, Evergreen International Airlines was formed when Delford M. Smith bought the planes and airline license of a small supplemental carrier. The global airline operated all-cargo Boeing 747 freighters, including the “Evergreen Supertanker,” which could deliver 10 times the water (20,000 gallons) of a conventional tanker to a forest fire.

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The company operated limited passenger service, although they did transport the Shah of Iran for the CIA in 1980. The company gave employees three weeks’ notice of their closure via voicemail in 2013.

Direct Air 2007-2012

Operating as a charter service out of Myrtle Beach, Direct Air leased aircraft with charter airlines to serve smaller cities and destinations. Controversy ensued when the company canceled all flights overnight, citing a missed fuel payment as the cause, and stranded customers in airports.

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Principal partners Kay Ellison and Judy Tull were convicted of four substantive counts of bank fraud, three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. They attempted to not only steal passengers’ money from an escrow account, but also lied about their finances.

Air Midwest 1965-2008

Beginning as a human remains transport company, Air Midwest first flew living passengers in 1968 when the Kansas market opened up with Frontier Airlines’ departure from the area. Eventually, they operated 118 planes that conducted feeder flights for Eastern, TWA, US Airways, Braniff and Ozark airlines.

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After being acquired by Mesa Air Group in 1991, Air Midwest continued to operate as a subsidiary. In 2003, a series of unfortunate events and miscalculations led to the airline’s only crash, killing all 21 people on board. Increased fuel and maintenance costs resulted in the airline’s closure by Mesa in 2008.

Ted 2004-2009

While technically an airline divisional brand, Ted was United’s attempt at a low-cost carrier to compete with Frontier out of Denver. Serving 23 destinations throughout the U.S. and Mexico, Ted’s planes were all 156 seat Airbus A320s.

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Each plane was outfitted with 20 overhead “Tedevisions,” and every seat had access to TedTunes’ 12 music stations plus the Air Traffic Control live-feed station, which was available at the pilot’s discretion. Motivated by the airline crisis, United killed the brand in 2008 and absorbed the aircraft into their own fleet.