10 Major AIrlines of the past
10 Major AIrlines of the past

History Special: 10 Major Airlines of the Past (Part 1)

Airline industry is forever evolving. There are many great airlines that once dominated the aviation industry, they were the launch customers for new aircraft type and household names of the industry. However, some of the biggest names in the airline industry didn't last. Here's a list of 10 major airlines that no longer exist.


For a trip down memory lane to remember airlines of years past, the journey has to start with Pan Am, Pan American World Airways. Their history in the age of flying boats is hard to imagine nowadays; charging $25,000 to fly from San Francisco to Hong Kong with ocean liner quality food, service and bedding, when the competition was actual ocean liners. Pan Am kickstarted the jet age on October 26th 1958, with the first revenue flight of a Boeing 707 from New York to Paris (with a fuel stop in both directions). In fact the Brits were first, with the Comet 1 flying from London to Johannesburg (with six stops!) starting in May 1952 followed by the Soviet Union with the Tupolev Tu-104 from Moscow to Irkutsk starting in September 1956; but it was the Pan Am Jet Clippers that set the standard, flying a global network through the 1960s that would make an Emirates route planner blush.

It was Pan Am’s boss Juan Trippe and Boeing’s boss Bill Allen who hatched the 747 on a fishing trip, but the jumbo jet proved to be Pan Am’s undoing. A product that worked perfectly on a 707, flying from San Francisco to the South Pacific, with two dozen passengers served by a cabin crew, who were the daughters of diplomats and European royalty, was lost on a plane with 300 passengers. In 1973 the price of oil quadrupled; not only making flying much more expensive but soaking up disposable income that would otherwise be spent on travel as gasoline and heating shot up in price too. Having the first jumbos might have been a big deal in 1970, but by the middle of the decade all their competitors had jumbos too and younger more refined jumbos at that.

Pan Am had been the USA’s ‘chosen instrument’ abroad, enjoying a near monopoly on international routes but with no domestic network at all (meanwhile the likes of Delta and United were domestic only). With the deregulation of the USA’s airline industry in 1978 Pan Am decided that building a domestic network from scratch would take too long; so they paid one billion dollars for National Airlines, which gave them the domestic feed they sought but at too high a price. Already losing money after a bruising 1970s, the airline’s finances went into freefall; shedding major parts to raise short term cash – the famous Pan Am Building in Manhattan in 1980, the Intercontinental hotel chain in 1982, the entire Pacific network to United in 1985, their Heathrow slots to American and the rest of the Atlantic network to Delta in 1990. The tragedy of a 747 being blown up in midair over Scotland in 1988 and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 robbed the once great airline of any chance of survival and the last flight landed at Miami on December 4th1991. The blue meatball, the airline’s iconic logo, once upon a time the second-most recognised corporate logo in the world after Coca Cola, moved into the history books.

TWA (Trans World Airlines) 

TWA was later short for Trans World Airlines, but was originally founded in 1930 as Transcontinental & Western Air. Billionaire filmmaker and pilot Howard Hughes took over the airline in 1939 and after World War 2 it expanded to a round-the-world operator with planes built by Lockheed, also owned by Hughes, most notably the Constellation, whose final incarnation, the L-1649 Starliner, is generally considered to be the best and most beautiful propliner of all time.

Boeing 707s, 727s, and Convair CV-880s saw TWA join the jet age. Because of Howard Hughes’ close links to Hollywood, TWA were always the airline in movies, their jets making memorable cameos in All About Eve, Giant, Airport, Rocky III and IV, Annie Hall, and countless other movies and TV shows. In the 1970s TWA experienced the same issue with their 747s – too much aeroplane in an oil price rise and recession – and in the 1980s the same issue with corporate raiders, being taken over by Carl Icahn who used creative accounting to enrich himself and impoverish the airline, which was actually doing pretty well, carrying 50% of all transatlantic traffic in the summer of 1985 with 30 widebodies crossing the ocean each way every day.

The 1990s saw a retreat as its Heathrow slots were sold to American Airlines, and the Pacific market and the cargo market, two of the biggest arenas for growth in the industry, were ignored. Icahn was ousted but at a cost – his company Karabu was able to buy unlimited tickets with a 45% discount and sold on via travel agents at the market rate or undercutting TWA’s own published fares, a significant handbrake on progress.

Despite these headwinds, the airline was able to reorganise as a purely domestic airline, with inefficient 727s, 747s and Tristars retired in favour of a slimmed-down fleet of 757s, 767s, and McDonnell Douglas MD-80s. Lacking international feed or a true national network, the airline was ripe for a takeover and in December 2001 was bought out by American Airlines.

Eastern Airlines

By the mid-1970s, Eastern Airlines was the world’s biggest airline outside the Soviet Union’s monolithic Aeroflot, with an apt slogan in The Wings Of Man and an astronaut CEO (Frank Borman, Apollo 8). Their network had grown up, as their name suggested, on the eastern seaboard of the United States, with an emormous fleet of propliners (Constellations, Electras, everything Douglas built) and Eastern continued their loyalty to Douglas into the jet age, buying DC-8s instead of 707s. They did buy Boeing 720s, the short range version of the 707, and were the launch customer for the 727, the short and medium range trijet that brought jet service to suburbs and towns after eyeing larger cities with envy. A large fleet of Douglas DC-9 twin jets followed, then another product launch, introducing the world to the widebody Lockheed L-1011 Tristar in 1972. The breakthrough order for Airbus came in 1976 when Eastern took a fleet of A300 widebody twins. Airbus had struggled to break into the US market and in desperation offered Eastern four A300s for free, all Eastern had to pay for was the fuel. Eastern loved the A300 and couldn’t help notice the fuel burn was 30% less than a Tristar on the same route with almost the same payload.

However, the sharp-eyed will have noticed a very diverse portfolio of not only aircraft types but also manufacturers – Boeing, Douglas, Lockeed and Airbus. Only Tupolev was missing. Unable to keep costs competitive with younger, sleeker competiton, Borman sold the airline to corporate raider Frank Lorenzo in 1986, who already owned Continental Airlines.

Lorenzo went to war with the unions, making Eastern the most strike-prone airline in the country, and their reputation went downhill. Chunks of the airline were sold, including their innovative Boston-NY-DC shuttle to Donald Trump, a 727 every hour with guaranteed space available, with a back-up aircraft ready to fly even one extra passenger. Aircraft, gates, routes, and infrastructure was gradually transferred to the non-union Continental at terms disadvantagious to Eastern, and what was left over went bust in January 1991.

Ansett Australia

Australia is a large country but with a population of only 25 million even now (12.5 million in 1970), has struggled to sustain more than two airlines. In more recent times, that role has been filled by Virgin Australia, but back in the golden age of travel, it was Ansett. The airline was founded in Melbourne in 1936 and took over ANA, Australian National Airways, in October 1958.

Australia in those days had a fairly narrow view of competition, with one nationally-owned carrier (Trans Australia Airlines, or TAA) and one privately-owned (Ansett), both operating a similar fleet and with almost identical schedules and charging the same fares. There were only slight differences (eg when the widebody era dawned, Ansett bought 767-200s and TAA bought A300B4s) in the offering.

The difference was style. In the 1970s Ansett sported a smart red-and-black cheatline, and in 1981 adopted a livery created by San Francisco design studio Landor Associates of all white – including the wings – and a tail which featured the Southern Cross constellation as shooting stars. Today, cheatlines have been abandoned but in the early 1980s this was cutting edge stuff.

Ansett had been a purely domestic operator but in 1993 leased a trio of 747-300s from Singapore Airlines to inaugurate long haul flights to Bali, Hong Kong and Osaka, followed by Shanghai, Seoul, Taipei and Kuala Lumpur. The 747-300s were replaced by 747-400s and the airline was still enjoying its unique reputation for quality and style.

Unfortunately storm clouds gathered as Air New Zealand bought Ansett in 2000 just as the airline was running into problems, with many aircraft types (Boeing 727, 737, 747, Airbus A320, Fokker F28, BAe 146) operated in small numbers (mostly less than ten of each type) having only one thing in common, which was old age. Air New Zealand had bitten off more than it could chew and the amalgamated company was soon losing $1.3 million every day. The New Zealand government stepped in to save their national carrier with a NZ$885 million bailout and cut Ansett loose. Despite an outcry from the Australian public for their government to step in and save an Australian icon, Ansett closed down in January 2002.


Braniff was a conservative Texas-based regional carrier with a good reputation from its founding in 1948 up until 1965, when it was bought by the Greatamerica Corporation who appointed Harding Lawrence, previously an executive vice president at Continental Airlines. With advertising executive Mary Wells (later Mary Wells Lawrence), graphic designer Alexander Girard, Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci and shoe designer Beth Levine, he oversaw a radical rebranding, known as the end of the plain plane. The actual aircraft were painted in the solid hue of one colour, albeit from a possible fifteen different colours. Air traffic controllers would place bets on which coloured plane would be flying over their radar rooms and passengers tried to collect the set. Everything from ground equipment, jet bridges, ticket jackets, even the inter-terminal monorail at DFW received the same rebrand, making Braniff the most stylish airline in the world. They bought a sole 747, known because of its livery as the Big Orange, to operate Dallas to Honolulu. With sixteen hours of every day spent in the air completing the round trip, the Big Orange quickly became the most high time 747 in the world.

The pride of the fleet was a pair of jets painted by legendary artist Alexander Calder – a DC-8 in the orange and red of South America, celebrating Braniff’s large portfolio of routes there, and a 727 with patriotic red white and blue streaks to mark America’s 1976 bicenntenial (although it had its detractors – one crew from a rival airline said it looked like a seagull that had flown through a plate glass window! and due to it being a very unreliable aircraft, Braniff mechanics came to refer to it as the Sneaky Snake).

When the US airline industry deregulated in 1978, Braniff feared that the opportunity to acquire new routes might not last, so they applied for everything they could, including opening 32 new routes in a single day and buying 747s to open flights on half a dozen transatlantic routes and as far afield as Los Angeles to Singapore via Guam.

Braniff even started flying Concordes domestically between Dallas and Washington, although as this route was overland, they had to remain subsonic, so other than a dramatic takeoff, the true advantage of an SST was lost, but the disadvantages – an eye-watering fuel bill and extremely cramped interior – remained. The airline tried to make up for it with an upgraded soft product but there weren’t enough people using the service to notice. So much caviar remained unused at the end of flights that cabin crew would take it home to feed to their cats.

Meanwhile, Dallas-based American Airlines under the guidance of Robert Crandall were weaponising their frequent flier programme and computer based reservations systems to take advantage of the new deregulated market. Braniff lost hundreds of dollars a year in their own chaotic attempt to manage in the new reality, which ended with shut down on May 6, 1982. Their last revenue flight was the arrival of the Big Orange 747 from Honolulu the next morning.

A Braniff II flew a reasonable size fleet of over 50 727s starting in 1983, but like the various Pan Am and Eastern start ups and sequels that have tried to find gold in former glories, this was no return to the golden age and this effort ended in 1990.

Have you flown on any airlines above? What's your experience like?

Stay tuned for next week's Part 2!