We have covered 10 great airlines of the past to remember them. We've received so much feedback and decided to add a bonus round for our readers.
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CPAIR / CANADIAN AIRLINES
Canada is only a medium sized country in terms of population, so like Australia, while it dominates with sheer landmass, barely has enough people to support two major airlines. Air Canada has always been the dominant carrier, but from the 1970s until the 2000s had a worthy competitor in the shape of Canadian Pacific Air Lines, or CP Air for short, which was known in its final decade as Canadian Airlines.
Canadian Pacific was a railway and shipping company that bought a handful of bush airlines in the 1940s and by the early 1950s was flying propliners from Vancouver to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Honolulu, Fiji and Sydney, and a polar route to Europe that ran from Edmonton to Amsterdam. Canadian Pacific had ambitious plans to operate a pure jet service from Sydney to Honolulu via Fiji and Canton Island using Britain’s pioneering de Havilland Comet 1 (and a DC-7 piston prop from Honolulu to Vancouver, as that leg was too long for the Comet). Alas Canadian Pacific’s first Comet crashed on takeoff in Karachi on its delivery flight from the factory in Hatfield UK to Sydney and this ambitious plan was shelved.
The airline was rebranded CPAir in 1968 and adopted a striking orange livery that made it famous worldwide. Douglas DC-8 and DC-10 jets were joined by Boeing 747 jumbos, with colourful and unique interiors that added a stylish twist to the experience. But beneath the modish brand, debts mounted as competition heated up.
In 1987, CP Air was sold to Calgary-based Pacific Western Airlines and the new entity was called branded Canadian Airlines. To appease Francophone Canadians, the last ‘a’ of the name, the only letter that states which language is used (Canadian/Canadien), became an arrowhead, and thus a diplomatic Canadi›n.
In 1989 Canadian took over plucky independent Wardair which added a European network to the route map and by 1996 Canadian Airlines was flying 12 million passengers a year (with three million enrolled in its frequent flier programme) to 160 destinations in 17 countries on five continents, and was a founding member of the oneworld alliance. It was also the world’s first airline to have a website.
Leveraging its role in oneworld led to codesharing with American Airlines (who owned 25% of Canadian) to create a hub in Vancouver capturing US to Asia traffic, but alas the late 1990s slowdown of the Asian economies meant these routes, previously very lucrative, were becoming a lot less profitable.
Despite attempts to find a partner or expand American Airlines’ investment, Canadian ran out of options and was bought by Air Canada on the first day of 2001. Its 13 Airbus A320s, 23 Boeing 767-300ERs and four 747-400s were integrated into Air Canada’s fleet, while its 14 DC-10s were sold. The 43 737-200s were mostly sold but a few got painted in full Air Canada livery for a short while.
Canada hasn’t had a second global airline since, although domestic low cost giant WestJet started flying to Europe shortly before the Covid 19 pandemic, initially with second hand 767-300ERs bought from Qantas to get the ball rolling, followed by factory fresh 787s. With the pandemic hopefully retreating, it will be interesting to see if WestJet follow in Canadian Pacific’s footsteps.
Brazil’s flag carrier was formed in 1927 by German industrialists with a flying boat operating out of Porto Alegre. Ruben Martin Berta became managing director in 1943 and as World War 2 ended in 1945 he started making big plans for the airline, starting with the standardisation of the motley fleet around one type, the Lockheed L-10 Electra twin engined piston prop (not to be confused with the L-188 Electra, a four engined propjet that found a great deal of popularity in Brazil, operating the air bridge between Sao Paolo and Rio’s downtown airports until 1992).
After a decade of domestic and regional service, Varig started flying to New York with Lockheed L-1049G Super Constellation piston propliners, marking a change in the culture of the airline – it was one of the big boys now. The Jet Age dawned in Brazil in December 1959, with the introduction of la belle Caravelle on the New York run with stops in Belem, Trinidad and Nassau due to its short range. In July 1960 the Caravelles were relegated to domestic and regional flights and New York was taken over by Rolls-Royce powered Boeing 707s which could make the trip nonstop.
European services to Lisbon, Paris, Frankfurt, Rome and Beirut started in 1965 with the takeover of Pan Am-backed Panair do Brasil, which also came with a handful of DC-8 jets, and even a route from Los Angeles all the way across the Pacific to Japan, which may seem surprising for a Brazilian carrier but there are two million Brazilians of Japanese heritage, the biggest outside Japan.
The 1970s saw the quadrupling of oil prices and a consequent retirement of old and thirsty aircraft, replaced by widebody McDonnell Douglas DC-10s and Boeing 747s, and consolidation of routes and management structure. In 1985 the country transitioned from military rule to democracy which loosened Varig’s ties to the ruling class, and the deregulation of the industry let in competitors such as VASP and Transbrasil. To turn the tide, the airline joined Star Alliance and a new livery was introduced, dispensing with Varig’s famous blue cheatline and replacing it with a bland white fuselage and generic clip art compass logo on the tail.
In 2001, Brazilian low cost operator in the Southwest/Ryanair style began flying, with TAM, VASP and Transbrasil lowering their fares to compete. In the carnage, Varig was knocked off the top spot in domestic marketshare (for the first time since 1961) and to third place in 2004. The maintenance facilities were sold to TAP Air Portugal, followed by VarigLog, the cargo division, to a consortium of investors.
Varig was then split into two, with one entity (“the old Varig” and named Nordeste) absorbing all the debts, and the other (“the new Varig” and named VRG Linhas Aereas) flying on with the famous brand intact but shorn of its liabilities.
The new Varig was bought by Gol, who intended to run it as an international arm of their mostly domestic business, but the brand differentiation didn’t mean much as Varig aircraft became all-economy, like Gol. By June 2009, Varig’s flights all had Gol flight numbers and in 2010 the holding company for the new Varig was put into bankruptcy. Monolithic ships of state like Varig were essential for the advancement of air travel in its early and middle years but more recently, with deregulation and the demystification of heavier-than-air flight, institutions with the scale and payroll of a national bank are no longer needed. Nimble low cost carriers might make more sense in today’s world but it is a shame to see such powerful expressions of national pride like Varig disappear.
Up until 1978, the US domestic airline industry was regulated, so every airline needed a route licence for every route, which included when they could fly, what kind of aircraft type they could use, what they could charge for a ticket, and even what kind of food they could serve. As the industry matured, that much protection for the industry was seen as a hindrance to competition and consumer choice, and overnight the whole thing was deregulated. Anyone could fly wherever they wanted and charge whatever they wanted. The only regulation that applied was FAA rules concerning safety.
While the incumbent majors had the most to lose, and proceeded with caution, a number of start-ups seized the opportunity of a level playing field, and one of those was People Express, founded by Donald Burr, previously of Texas International and a big admirer of British maverick Freddie Laker who opened up the Atlantic to low cost competition in the 1970s with his Laker Skytrain.
People Express (stylised as PEOPLExpress) bought secondhand 727-200s from Alitalia and Braniff, and (rare!) 737-100s from Lufthansa. Newark’s derelict north terminal was chosen as the base, with flights to Buffalo, Columbus and Norfolk beginning on April 30, 1981. By December, the Newark hub had 42 departures a day and in May 1983 opened up transatlantic flights to London Gatwick with a small fleet of secondhand 747-200Bs also acquired from Alitalia and Braniff. With fares starting at $149 each eay, the London flight was an immediate sell out (and even gave rise to Virgin Atlantic; when music entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson called People Express to book a ticket, no matter how many times he called, he could only get an engaged tone, and on that evidence decided to start an airline).
People Express didn’t just innovate with low fares. It had a unique corporate structure where people did different jobs, including captains working check in and upper management cleaning planes, known as cross-utilisation. It was the first US airline to charge for checked bags ($3) and food (50¢ for soda, brownies and peanuts, $1 for a beer).
This all seemed to work well and the airline was flying high, but 1985 brought way too much expansion way too soon. The 747 fleet scaled up to nine ships, enabling jumbo jet service from Newark to London, Brussels, Los Angeles and Oakland. If that wasn’t enough to bite off, the acquisition of Denver-based Frontier Airlines was. The original Frontier (as opposed to the more recent, “a whole different animal” one) was an old school regional carrier with a fleet of 60 jets flying to 94 destinations in the west. Despite the odd unconventional move such as employing the only Tuskagee Airman (black Americans who flew in combat in World War 2) to be hired by a major and the first female pilot at a US major (on the same day!), Frontier was not a good fit for buccaneering People Express. It had a first class cabin, high wages, a sclerotic corporate structure, and union representation (who had just had a bruising fight with Frontier management over a non-union subsidiary, Frontier Horizon). Despite putting 747s on the Newark to Denver run to feed the Frontier network, it was too much too soon and the cost of the expansion dragged down People Express, which was bought by Texas International, Burr’s old employer, and folded both PE and Frontier seperately into Continental Airlines.
The experiment had failed due to overambitious expansion but People Express left a powerful legacy, with its low cost and buy-on-board business model established, and same for the viability of Newark which had previously been overshadowed by La Guardia and Kennedy in the perception of New Yorkers. The Newark hub became Continental’s gateway to the world and plays the same role today for United, who took over Continental in 2010. People Express even got a shout-out on The Simpsons, in the flashback episode Homer’s Barbershop Quartet, in which Homer describes 1985 as the year “People Express introduced a generation of hicks to air travel”!
America West was another US start-up in the style of People Express, beginning operations in 1983 with 11 Boeing 737s based in Phoenix, and 13 destinations served from day one. By 1984 the fleet had expanded to 21 ships flying to 23 cities. So confident was its management of future growth and prosperity that by 1986 America West played a major role in the expansion of facilities at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport including insisting on an underground cavity for a railway station beneath the terminal.
In some ways America West followed in the classic start-up style with cross-utilisation of workers, but in other ways departed from it, most notably by having a first class product across the fleet and offering full service in economy. One way it imitated its contemporaries was by expanding fast and getting into a lot of debt, partly bailed out by Ansett Australia who bought 26% of America West and leased their jets to fly within Australia during an Ansett pilots strike.
In 1989, America West acquired four Boeing 747-200Bs from KLM to inaugurate flights from Phoenix to Sydney to hook up with its new friend down under, although this route application was denied. Instead, the jumbos were used to fly from Phoenix and secondary hub Las Vegas to Honolulu, and from Honolulu to Nagoya in Japan. By this point Phoenix had 182 daily departures to 46 airports, and Las Vegas had 132 daily departures (including 24 between midnight and 0140am) to 39 airports.
Despite the size and ambition of the operation, America West continued to lose money and in 1991 filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors under Chapter 11 rules of the US bankruptcy code which allowed the company to continue trading, but with debts left unpaid and employee shares worthless (which would have been quite a blow to the workforce as a condition of employment was kicking 20% of your paycheck back into share purchases, which paid for a lot of the early expansion). The 747s, which had been flying almost completely empty and frequently with technical delays due to their old age, were parked. The network shrank considerably. After three years, America West emerged from bankruptcy protection, refinanced in part by Mesa Airlines and Continental Airlines, with whom it formed codeshare agreements. A midwest hub was opened in Columbus Ohio, with its old TWA Ambassadors Club becoming an America West lounge. The rest of the decade was spent consolidating its position in the market.
Starting in 2005, America West took over bankrupt USAirways. Because the merged carrier spanned the entire country plus Europe, with no particular geographic emphasis, it was the USAirways name that endured. Telltale signs showing which airline was really the dominant parner remained, most notably in the merged airline retaining the callsign Cactus systemwide, most famously in Captain Sully’s famous ditching of an Airbus A320 in January 2009 after a bird strike over New York. It might have been known in the media as the Miracle On The Hudson, but to air traffic control it was Cactus 1549.
USAirways (but really America West) merged with American Airlines in December 2013, creating the world’s biggest airline. The Cactus callsign was finally gone from the airwaves, the last element of America West to survive; but America West remembered as a rare case of a deregulation start-up that was able to navigate the pitfalls of a turbulent industry and go out on top. Bravo!
Jersey European Airways was formed in 1979 to fly from the Channel Islands in the English Channel to the British mainland, initially with war-surplus Douglas DC-3 piston props, soon upgraded to propjet Vickers Viscounts. The airline established a base in Exeter, in the West Country of England, and by 1985 was carrying nearly 200,000 passengers a year around the United Kingdom, and 460,000 by 1990.
Jets arrived in 1993 in the shape of little four-engined British Aerospace BAe-146s, which were used throughout the UK including across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland, and out of London Heathrow on behalf Air France to Toulouse and Lyon. Plans to buy bigger jets, Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s, were considered but never carried to fulfilment.
In June 2000 it was announced the airline would rebrand as British European Airways to better convey the scale of the airline. A pretty penny was presumably paid to British Airways, whose European routes flew under that name until 1974 and surely retained naming rights. An eagerness to establish its own legacy perhaps, or to avoid paying the big bucks, led to another name change, to FlyBe, in July 2002. In 2005, FlyBe announced an order for 26 Embraer 195 jets, making it the launch customer. In 2008 the airline was embroiled in a sustainability scandal when Norwich airport, with whom FlyBe had a deal that discounted airport fees assuming a certain number of passengers in the year, refused to budge when the airline looked like it would just fall short of the agreed target. The rebate was worth £280,000 so FlyBe took to operating flights full of paid actors supplied by extras agencies on roundtrips to Dublin to hit the numbers, which it achieved, but at the cost of considerable reputational harm for both airline and airport.
A domestic airline of substantial size in a country as geographically small as the United Kingdom was always going to be a challenge (and incurred ongoing criticism about the environmental cost, given that the UK is not only small but has widespread if expensive rail coverage). After incurring financial losses, new management was brought in in 2010. A major audit established that of the airline’s 158 routes, 60 did not cover their direct operating costs (crew, aircraft, fuel, handling). Looking for more profitable markets, bases were established at London City, Cardiff, Doncaster, Southend, and Dusseldorf. A new purple livery was introduced but profitability remained elusive. The British government deferred £20 million in tax obligations in 2019, and Virgin Atlantic announced it would acquire FlyBe and rebrand it as Virgin Connect, in a new role feeding the mothership with local connections.
in 2020 FlyBe asked for an eye-watering £100 million loan from the government which was initially approved, but with the advent of the Covid 19 pandemic, the future outlook became so dire that a loan would only postpone the inevitable and was cancelled. Virgin Atlantic had spent £135 million propping up their new investment but they came to the same conclusion as the British government and withdrew further support.
FlyBe ceased operations on March 20, 2020. It was a shame to see such a long established airline close down, and with spotless safety record, without a single aircraft ever being damaged in service since 1979. But in later years it felt like FlyBe was looking for a meaningful role that it never quite found. It sure was ambitious, with a fleet of 54 DHC Dash-8 Q400 turboprops, the world’s biggest operator of the type. Some of my first flights were on their BAe-146s to Belfast in the 1990s and they were a fixture at regional airports in the UK for many years. Despite the implausible business (and environmental) case, I was sad to see this one go.
Cover Image: via Charles Kennedy, original unknown