US Airways' upcoming takeover of American Airlines will whittle down – to just two – yet another of the 19 large carriers flying around the country when Uncle Sam got out of the airline business 35 years ago.
Up to the late 70s, the airlines operated much like a public utility – the feds told them where they could fly and how much they could charge for the service. The system largely involved a network of hub airports where eight “regional” airlines fed passengers to 11 big “trunk” airlines.
In the Midwest, for instance, Ozark Airlines flew you from Springfield, Mo., to St. Louis, where you connected to flights on coast-to-coast airlines like American and United. And you flew on Southern Airways from Columbus, Ga., to Atlanta to hop on biggies like Delta and Eastern.
Similarly, six other regionals fed traffic to the trunks at other connecting hubs around the country: Hughes Airwest, mainly at San Francisco; Allegheny, at hubs in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; Frontier (no relation to the present Frontier), at Denver; North Central, at Minneapolis; Texas International, at Houston; and Piedmont, at Winston-Salem, N.C.
All that changed when the Airline Deregulation Act became the law of the land in 1978. Unshackled from Uncle Sam (although they still had to comply with federal safety regulations), big and small airlines alike could now fly just about anywhere they wanted to and for whatever they wanted to charge.
And what happened in the unshackled marketplace? Surprise, surprise: The big guys ate up the little guys. None of the eight regionals survived.
Here's how they bit the dust:
Southern and North Central teamed up to form Republic Airlines (no relation to today's Republic), then added Hughes Airwest to the mix. But the deal saddled Republic with huge debts, and it was forced to sell out to Northwest, one of the giant trunks of the day (and which later on was absorbed by Delta).
Little Ozark was gobbled up by TWA, which in turn was folded into American. Frontier became a unit of a post-deregulation airline called PeopleExpress, which in turn became a unit of Continental.
Allegheny acquired Piedmont, after which it changed its name to USAir. Later, another post-deregulation upstart – America West – bought USAir, then changed the name of the whole company to US Airways (which is now on track to pair up with American).
Texas International, the last of the regionals, won a fierce battle for control of Continental. But its brand vanished when the combined carrier adopted the name of the larger airline. Later on, Continental merged with United to become United Continental Holdings, operator of United (sans Continental's brand, other than Continental's globe on the tail of their planes).
Of the other five trunks, Western Airlines merged with Delta in 1987. National was acquired by Pan Am, which after a long succession of financial setbacks declared bankruptcy and went out of business in 1991. Eastern, after running into heavy headwinds, including a bitter strike, finally threw in the towel the same year.
Braniff, known for its flamboyant paint schemes and its inflight “Pucci strip” (flight attendants got their passengers' attention by taking off non-critical parts of their colorful designer uniforms), went hog-wild at the onset of deregulation. For instance, it added 16 new cities and 32 new routes in a single day, expecting a ton of new traffic.
But its expectations didn't pan out. That fiasco combined with other setbacks left the airline drowning in a sea of red ink. It finally folded its wings in 1982.
So that leaves only three names of the original 19 still in the air: Delta, United and American (or four names if you count a reincarnation of Frontier).
But there's a whole bunch of scrappy upstarts nipping at their heels. Besides Frontier, like JetBlue, Spirit and Allegiant. Also, some carriers only authorized to fly within single states when deregulation came about have turned into major carriers such as Southwest, Hawaiian and Alaska. And a number of former commuter airlines that once flew small turboprops are now jet carriers.
Disclosure: The writer is a retired airline executive having handled public relations for six airlines during his 35-year airline career.