Airlines, like many other businesses, operate under a type of Darwinian rule — only the strong survive. Throughout the decades, many have come and gone. Some have been bought and merged into others, while a few have made a come-back, with mixed results.
On Thursday, World Airways, a cargo and charter airline in business since 1948, announced that the airline would immediately cease operations, citing the fact that creditors had declared World in default of its loan and stopped providing financing for operation of the airline. If you've served in the U.S. military recently, you may be familiar with World, as the military was its largest customer. Its parent company, Global Aviation Holdings had been trying to secure financing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. But in the end, World could not be saved. 325 employees were laid off, including 109 pilots and 146 flight attendants.
One of the airlines looking to make a comeback is PEOPLExpress. Based in Newport News, Virginia, the airline promises to:
"revive the iconic brand of the 1980's and restore the concepts of Respect, Value, and Excitement to the air travel experience. By providing safe, affordable and enjoyable flights on a convenient schedule to cities that are underserved as a result of the consolidations and mergers of the major carriers, our business model and its customer-centric focus will form a solid foundation for the success of our company, its Shareholders and Team Members."
Their corporate site also says "we're not looking to the past to find our success" — which is a good thing.
PEOPLExpress Boeing 747 at London Gatwick by ATom.uk on Flickr, licensed for Creative Commons commercial use.
To put it in today's terms, PEOPLExpress was the Spirit Airlines of the 1980s. PEOPLExpress was the first airline in America to charge for a checked bag, with a $3.00 fee. They also charged for sodas and other snacks on board. The original incarnation of the airline was based at Newark (EWR) and began flying in April 1981 with Boeing 737s to Buffalo, Norfolk and Columbus, Ohio. By December of that year, the airline had 42 departures each weekday from Newark. PEOPLExpress added international flights from Newark to London Gatwick in 1983, starting at only $149 each way, which were of course hugely popular and sold out for months in advance. They bought out Denver-based Frontier Airlines in 1985 and grew a network that included most major U.S. cities. Integrating the two airlines proved to be troublesome as the acquisition of Frontier placed a mountain of debt on PEOPLExpress, plus Frontier's passengers weren't used to the no-frills style of the new airline. The airline folded in 1986 after what critics say was a case of growing too big, too fast, at the expense of profitability.
Another airline hoping to return to the skies is Eastern Air Lines. A group of investors filed an application in January of this year with the Department of Transportation to bring Eastern back to life. According to a Bloomberg report, Eastern plans to be based in Miami, where the original airline had a large hub, and take delivery of its first plane, an Airbus A320 late this summer. The original Eastern was founded in 1927 and also based in Newark, but later moved its base to Miami. Over the years its owners included General Motors and World War 1 flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. In the mid-1960s, Eastern helped Boeing develop the 727, calling it the WhisperJet — though you'd hardly call it a whisper if you ever saw one taking off. Notably, Eastern was also the first U.S. carrier to fly the Airbus A300 and was also the launch customer for the Boeing 757.
Eastern Air Lines planes parked in Atlanta after ceasing operation. / AP Images
Eastern was hit hard by airline deregulation in 1978, as well as competition from low-cost carriers during the 80s including PEOPLExpress. The airline was sold in 1986 to Texas Air, led by Frank Lorenzo, who was a notorious union buster. In 1989, Lorenzo asked Eastern's mechanics and ramp service employees to accept pay cuts, and waged himself into a battle with the International Association of Machinists. I even remember my Dad, who worked for Southwest Airlines at the time, having a "Screw Lorenzo" lapel button as a show of solidarity with his colleagues. Eastern flew until 1991, when continued labor issues and decreased passenger traffic during the Gulf War caused the airline to cease operation.
Only time will tell if PEOPLExpress and Eastern can make a successful return. I'm happy to say that I have flown several airlines that are now only memories, including the original Frontier and Eastern, Western, Braniff, Muse Air, British Caledonian, Northwest, Continental, and Pan Am. Braniff and Pan Am have each tried unsuccessfully to come back to life. Pan Am has been reincarnated six times, each time being worse than the one before it. Some aviation geeks would love to see Pan Am make another triumphant return, while others prefer to remember its glory days.
Top photo: World Airways MD-11 by AeroIcarus on Flickr, licensed for Creative Commons commercial use.