In the little more than 100 years of commercial air travel, thousands of airlines have come and gone as casualties of oil prices, politics, mismanagement or financial loss.
Some closures are more memorable than others, such as Pan Am’s fall from grace and the recent collapse of Thomas Cook, but each of these 17 airlines managed to make an impression on the industry, and on their passengers, before flying their final flights.
UK airline Flybe went into administration March 4, after a slump in bookings due to the novel coronavirus outbreak proved the nail in the coffin for the struggling carrier.
The low-budget airline celebrated its 40th anniversary last year and was Europe’s largest independent regional airline, at one point operating more than 200 routes.
The UK government announced in January that it was in talks with the ailing carrier “to set Flybe on a recovery path.”
However, the coronavirus outbreak in Europe meant the airline fell victim to a drop in demand for plane travel which has thrown the industry into crisis worldwide, with flights being canceled, planes grounded and airline staff across the globe forced to take unpaid leave.
Thomas Cook Group Airlines
British tour operator Thomas Cook, a venerable institution of 178 years’ standing, collapsed in September 2019, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers and triggering a huge repatriation effort.
Cook’s increasingly old-fashioned model of selling package deals of flights on its own airlines, along with hotel rooms, from brick-and-mortar stores meant it had been struggling to compete with online rivals and low-budget upstarts.
Uncertainty over Brexit and a weak pound were also cited as contributor factors to the operator’s struggles.
The airline section of the business operated with more than 100 aircraft, based in the UK, Denmark and Germany.
In March 2019, Iceland-based Wow Air, known for its wow-ingly low-priced flights between Europe and North America, abruptly shuttered and announced it was bankrupt.
“Wow had been in financial trouble, they had attempted to merge with Icelandair which failed,” says CNN’s Richard Quest. “The writing was on the wall but Wow just continued to let people book.”
When the hoped-for merger with Icelandair fell apart at the last minute, it resulted in stranded passengers throughout Europe.
Although Wow’s bright purple liveries and charismatic CEO Skuli Mogensen got plenty of buzz during its eight-year tenure, the airline might be best remembered for its spectacular demise.
Founded in 1937 as “All American Aviation,” the airline rebranded to “Allegheny Airlines” in 1953, to “USAir” in 1979, when it was considered among the world’s largest airlines, and finally to “US Airways” in 1997.
As US Airways, the carrier flew a wide domestic and international network from its hubs at Charlotte, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington D.C.-National airports, and bought up Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), Piedmont Airlines, and the failing Trump Shuttle.
On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson River following engine failure from multiple bird strikes. All passengers and crew survived in the event, now termed the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
US Airways merged with American Airlines in 2013, forming the world’s largest airline, with the final US Airways-branded flight landed in April 2015.
Continental’s long history began in 1937 when “Varney Speed Lines” rebranded and refocused, from flying airmail to carrying passengers.
The airline was responsible for many historic “firsts,” such as hiring the first African-American pilot to work for any major US carrier (1963), inaugurating the first regular jet routes connecting islands across the Pacific (1968), flying the first non-stop route over 16 hours (Newark to Hong Kong, 2001) and offering 24-hour online support (2009).
Headquartered in Houston and with other hubs in Cleveland, Newark and Guam, Continental flew until it merged with United Airlines in 2012.
This airline, founded in 1984 and with routes across the country chiefly from its Milwaukee and Kansas City hubs, ceased to exist in late 2010 when it merged into Frontier Airlines.
From the 1990s into the early 2000s, Midwest set itself apart from competitors by continuing to offer generous, complimentary hot meals when other airlines were cutting back on amenities.
Midwest’s famous warm chocolate chip cookies, baked and served onboard every flight, outlasted the Midwest brand and continued on Frontier flights until that airline discontinued the cookie service in 2012.
Initially launching as charter company in 1973, ATA began scheduled operations in 1986 with flights from the Midwest to Florida, serving vacation routes that would ultimately become the airline’s specialty despite a brief experiment with international flights.
Indianapolis and Chicago-Midway Airports served as ATA hubs. Following the economic effects of September 11, 2001, the airline suffered financial setback after setback, until declaring bankruptcy and ceasing operations on April 2, 2008, with flights still in the air.
During the bankruptcy, Southwest Airlines scooped up the ATA brand, its access at LaGuardia Airport, and the operating certificate for $7.5 million.
A remnant of the glory days of Trans World Airlines remains at New York’s JFK Airport, the airline’s transatlantic hub, where passengers departed and arrived through the Eero Saarinen-designed “TWA Flight Center” terminal.
This icon of fantastical, mid-century architecture is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been redeveloped as a hotel and conference center.
The end of World War II and the purchase of a military surplus plane led to the 1946 creation of Aloha Airlines, which operated flights between the US mainland and Hawaii, and to other Pacific islands.
Aloha was the main competitor to Hawaiian Airlines, but it was a fare war with the now-defunct island-hopper airline “go!” that drove Aloha to declare bankruptcy and cease operations in 2008.
Travelers to India may be familiar with the Kingfisher brand of beer, but the name (and the beer’s parent company) also entered the airline business, with Kingfisher Airlines commencing flights around India in 2005.
Its international service, to London, featured a bar in first class, and top-of-the-line entertainment systems and full-size pillows even in economy.
Consistent heavy financial losses drove Kingfisher to the brink of cessation several times, before the airline was forced to end operations in 2012 when India suspended its license and froze its accounts for non-payment of taxes.
The short-lived Eos Airlines, which existed only from 2004 to 2008, was an all-business-class carrier flying 48-seat Boeing 757s between New York-JFK and London’s Stansted Airport.
It was a trend leader, heralding the slew of all-premium transatlantic airlines that also started up in the mid-2000s, like L’Avion, MAXJet and Silverjet. Before Eos could see through its plans to expand all-business-class flights to other US, European, and even South American destinations, the airline suddenly collapsed into bankruptcy.
Primera may have hit the headlines for its spectacularly terrible failure and stranding thousands of passengers (and even its own crew) when it ceased operations in October 2018 without warning, but the airline had been around since 2003 and was a successful charter operation before it pivoted to ultra-low-cost scheduled flights primarily on European holiday routes.
Primera’s attempt to offer long-haul, transatlantic flights between the United States and Europe then literally got off the ground in April 2018, only to last a few months before the entire operation collapsed two years ago.
Primera’s failure came on the one-year anniversary of Monarch Airlines’ own demise, which occurred on October 2, 2017.
The budget British airline, founded in 1967, flew vacationers to tourism hotspots around Europe, as well as to Israel.
Financial difficulties drove Monarch to desperately seek funding and, despite scoring some investment from Boeing in 2016, the airline shut down and stranded some 110,000 passengers who were later repatriated on other airlines in an operation costing £60 million ($78 million).
Founded by Americans in 1978, Air Berlin initially operated holiday charter flights from West Berlin to Mediterranean vacation destinations. German reunification saw the airline rapidly expand, and Air Berlin became one of the largest European carriers.
Future plans and expansion hinged on eventually basing operations at Berlin’s new Brandenburg Airport, which was originally due to open in 2011 but suffered rolling delays and is now not expected to open, if at all, until 2020.
Air Berlin scaled back on operations over several years and, with sustained financial losses, finally flew its final flight in October 2017. Nearly immediately Lufthansa swooped in and purchased 81 of its aircraft and employed more than 3,000 former Air Berlin employees, with Easyjet also taking a smaller piece of the Air Berlin pie.
Pan Am, short for Pan American World Airways, is the story of a tiny, airmail carrier that hopped from Florida to Cuba and back beginning in 1927, to become the world’s largest airline and an industry innovator until its demise in 1991.
Graduating from floatplanes to Boeing 747s, the airline pioneered flight routes, opened hotels (starting the InterContinental hotel chain), and symbolized the glamor of the jet age.
Oil crises, hijackings and attacks, and other operational setbacks forced Pan Am into dire financial straits, and the carrier ceased on December 4, 1991. Delta paid $1.39 billion to acquire Pan Am’s assets, also honoring passenger tickets on the bankrupt carrier.
When low-cost airline literally and figuratively took off in the United States in the mid-2000s, United felt the pressure to try its own hand and thus formed Ted. The airline began flying all-economy Airbus A320s in 2004, with a hub at Denver International Airport.
In-flight entertainment on Ted flights was limited to “Tedevision” and “TedTunes,” and the airline sold teddy bears onboard. Ted’s main competitors were Frontier Airlines and Delta’s similar low-cost experiment, Song, and it lasted until 2009 when operations were folded back into United.
Known for its colorful cabin lighting, quirky personality, and desire to offer a stylish option in US air travel, Virgin America seduced fliers and captured airline awards throughout its decade of existence.
Although Virgin Group head Richard Branson was only a minority owner, his stunts combined with innovative marketing approaches often grabbed headlines, such as when Branson headlined and crowd-surfed at a Dallas rally while the airline utilized Change.org to gather support for the right to fly from the city’s Love Field.
Hearts broke across the country when Alaska Airlines was successful in purchasing the airline, and the final Virgin America flight took off on April 24, 2018.
Michelle Toh contributed to this report.