When it’s time to take flight, it’s reasonable to scour deal sites like Scott’s Cheap Flights, Hipmunk and Kayak looking to travel on American, JetBlue, or Delta. But in past days – and some before internet searches – there were other airlines taking flight that eventually didn’t make the cut.
And while customers are out there trying to get the cheapest flights, airlines are racking up big bucks paying for planes, staffing, and landing fees at commercial airports. In fact, over 80 US airlines have filed for either Chapter 7 or Chapter 11 bankruptcies since the late 70s, and the United States has also had countless airline companies cease operations.
Although some lasted decades and others were fly-by-nights (pun intended), their stories are of interest. And it’s no surprise that with travel bans, shelter in place orders, and talks about bailouts, one of the industries that will suffer the most is travel – more specifically airlines. So, from fatal crashes to leaving thousands of customers stranded, here are 15 defunct airlines and the story behind each.
With its central hub in Mexico City, Mexicana served as the country’s oldest and largest flagship airline for almost nine decades. Interestingly enough, Charles Lindbergh piloted the 1929 inaugural flight of its route to Brownsville, Texas. Mexicana also set up a 727 flight simulator service at their hub. The airline served the US and Latin America, but due to changing hands several times and looming debt, they went belly-up. Their former owner and president, Gaston Azcarraga, lives in the US as a fugitive after being accused of and investigated for fraud.
Pan American World Airlines (1927-1991)
Affectionately known as Pan Am, many retro-style movies include the airline and their trademark blue-uniformed flight attendants. Although it only lasted one season, a TV series bearing the airline’s name ran in 2011-12. Founded initially as a passenger and airmail service, Pan Am eventually grew to pioneer the use of jumbo jets and computerized reservation systems. Its real claim to fame was its experienced crew and use of modernized aircraft. Unfortunately, fuel prices increased due to the 1990 Gulf War, and Pan Am went into bankruptcy the following year.
Trans World Airlines (1930-2001)
Along with Pan Am, Trans World Airlines, otherwise known as TWA, was one of the “Big Four” domestic US airlines. Howard Hughes – who was also a philanthropist, filmmaker, and pilot – gained control of the airline in 1939 until it was acquired by Century 21 and Hilton International in the 1960s. Over the decades, TWA filed for bankruptcy three times until American Airlines purchased it in 2001. In light of the attacks of September 11th, many of the former TWA employees lost their jobs that year.
Swiss Air (1931-2002)
Formerly the national airline of Switzerland, it was dubbed the “Flying Bank” due to the company’s economic stability. Unlike many other airlines of its day, it was not financially dependent on the government. It was privately founded by two Swiss men – Balz Zimmermann and Walter Mittelholzer, who was a pilot and photographer. Like many other airlines, Swissair discontinued due to financial situations and the inability to pay debts and purchase fuel. They were also greatly affected by the happenings in NYC on September 11, 2001.
Besides having a somewhat funny name, Interflug was the national airline of East Germany, with Berlin serving as its hub. In 1972 the airline sustained Germany’s worst aviation accident when an Interflug plane tried to land in an emergency, killing 156 people. In 1970 and 1980, the airline underwent two failed hijacking attempts, and it was dismantled shortly after the unification of Germany in 1991.
Monarch Airlines (1967-2017)
Leave it to Great Britain to have an airline with this title. Two British businessmen established Monarch Airlines with the idea of transporting travelers to tourist destinations throughout Europe. At the time of Monarch’s founding, other airlines mostly marketed to the rich. Monarch Airlines wanted to allow the average person to travel, so it targeted its campaigns towards families. It entered into financial trouble in 2010, which caused several changes until it eventually folded in 2017. At that time, it was the most massive UK airline collapse, which left almost 100,000 of their clients stranded at various destinations.
US Airways (1979-2015)
US Airways may be an airline that you thought was still in service, as it merged with American Airlines in 2015. It got its start in the late 1930s as All American Aviation, which was operated by the du Pont family. The airline went through several name changes and was absorbed by other airlines until the name USAir came about in the late 1970s. Despite rebranding in the 90s and attempted modernization, the final USAir flight took place in 2015 when it took off as US Airways Flight 1939 and landed as American Airlines Flight 1939 to represent a ceremonial changing of hands.
Although the name sounds young and hip, this airline got its start in the late 1970s in Exeter, England. It was the largest independent regional airline in Europe and carried over 8 million passengers a year. In 2019 it was sold to Connect Airways due to financial struggles. It continued with its economic trials throughout early 2020, but the airline ceased operations in March of that year. This halt was due in part to decreased bookings and travel bans resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. It was one of the first travel company casualties from the Coronavirus.
Thomas Cook (1986-2019)
Founded initially as Trans-European Airways, Thomas Cook Airlines was based in Manchester, England, and flew to 82 different destinations. The air carrier went under a compulsory liquidation in 2019 and canceled all flights. As of early 2020, it was still offering refunds and had to close all retail shops. The collapse exceeded that of Monarch Airlines as Thomas Cook left over 150,000 people stranded at the time of their abrupt closure. For those wondering who Thomas Cook was, his name has been synonymous with British travel for almost 200 years, and the uncertainties surrounding Brexit likely caused the company’s financial struggles.
Carnival Air Lines (1988-1998)
Cruise ship? Yes! Airline, maybe. Well, for ten years, at least. We are all familiar with Carnival Cruise Lines, and the company purchased Pacific Interstate Airlines to rebrand it as Carnival Air Lines. The business initially branded the airline as Fun Air, but luckily that name didn’t stick, and no planes bore that logo. The once defunct Pan American Airways then purchased the airline in hopes of reviving the Pan Am name, but that never came about due to economic struggles.
Trump Shuttle (1989-1992)
Actor. Businessman. President. Airline owner? Yep! Well, make that former airline owner, although it was very short-lived. With limited destinations – NYC, Boston, and DC – the fleet consisted of 17 airplanes, although that isn’t how Trump got a flying start. His foray into the air business was when he purchased three helicopters to transport people to casinos in Atlantic City, NJ. Trump Shuttle floundered a bit and was financially unstable. It integrated with US Air, who is also no longer in service.
Nowadays, we have Spirit and Allegiant Air, but in the 90s, ValuJet was the deep discount airline of its day. The adage of “you get what you pay for” reigned true with this airline as lower prices resulted in dangerous cost-cutting measures, such as second-hand aircraft, pilots with minimal training, and relaxed safety standards. Their thriftiness resulted in the FAA wanting to ground the airline. In 1996, ValuJet suffered and never recovered due to a plane crash caused by an in-flight cargo fire. The plane was carrying hazardous, illegal substances, which started the fire that caused the plane to plunge into the Everglades, killing all 110 people on board.
Hooters Air (2003-2006)
Let me repeat that. Hooters. Air. Although it was a bit unconventional for a restaurant to own commercial planes, the airline flew to 17 destinations with the premise of taking golfers to championship courses. And, yes, there were girls on each flight dressed as they do in the restaurants, although they were just assistants to the working in-flight crew. Hooters Girls may seem like enough to fuel the desires of the male passengers, but it was eventual fuel price increases – due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – that brought Hooters Air to its demise.
Virgin America (2007-2018)
Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson has just about as many names as he does “Virgin” branded businesses. He established the Virgin Group in the 1970s. Branson also founded Virgin Records (a record store), Virgin Galactic (a spaceflight corporation), and – his newest venture – Virgin Voyages, which is an adults-only cruise line. Despite its success, Virgin America was sold to Alaska Airlines in 2018, yet Branson currently co-owns Virgin Atlantic Airways with partners Delta Airlines and Air France-KLM.
WOW Air (2012-2019)
Whoever named this airline, well wow, just wow. With a crazy name in all caps, this airline began as a budget flight alternative in Iceland. Based in Reykjavik, WOW flew to 27 destinations, mainly throughout Europe, North America, and Asia. In 2018 the airline was scheduled for a takeover by Icelandair, yet the acquisition never happened due to the company’s financial distress. The business went bankrupt in 2019, leaving many passengers stranded, although the founder, Skuli Mogensen, has been talking about resurrecting his once-successful airline.
Although many airlines have come and gone, many well-established ones continue today. Hopefully, they will have long-term success as no one wants to find themselves mid-vacation with not only a canceled flight but with a ticket from a suddenly defunct airline and no way home.