Defunct Airlines from around the World

Guides · 11 min read · Sep 13, 2022
defunct airlines

The fiercely competitive airline sector is often managed by governments or huge corporate groups. With 817 million new travelers and a total of 1.3 billion people, China has the largest airline market on the planet. The United States comes in second with 484 million unique passengers and a total of 1.1 billion. Investors, carriers, and management appear to find the opportunity presented by the enormous number of customers to be too good to pass up.

But during the past 20 years, a handful of well-known airline labels have vanished from the picture of modern aviation. As airlines merged to withstand the fierce competition in the industry, a significant number of these names have vanished.

How airlines in the United States got defunct? 

The commercial airline sector in the United States and, subsequently, in other countries around the world was completely revolutionized when Congress enacted a bill in 1978 enabling airlines to determine their own flight ticket prices and itineraries. Passenger satisfaction was considerably enhanced by this action. Federal government regulation helped airlines thrive in their early years, but it also kept prices elevated and prohibited them from running as effectively as feasible. The Civil Aeronautics Board, which governed aviation, was widely believed to have served its purpose.

Numerous new airlines were founded as a result of deregulation, and several smaller airlines expanded as well. Newer airlines, including PeopleExpress, Presidential, and New York Air, have emerged. Several regional airlines have made an effort to expand nationwide, including Air Florida, Frontier, and Ozark. Major airlines, on the other hand, raced to secure or retain access to the most lucrative markets.

Airliners lining up for takeoff at an airport.

To cope with the leading carriers, Eastern, Braniff, Delta, Continental, Western, and Northwest also expanded their networks. Airlines operating inside one state, such as Pacific Southwest, Air California, and Southwest, grew as well. In the face of all this new competition, traditional airlines attempted to entice customers with lower premiums and control expenses by reducing cabin amenities. 

The sector started to experience deficits when the early 1980s recession arrived, which was further exacerbated by a protest by air traffic controllers in 1981. Numerous carriers had overextended themselves and were now frantically competing for a smaller part of the trade. The enormous, well-run, well-funded airlines like American, United, and Delta survived the 1980s downturn.

Several others were unable to do so and were ultimately pushed into bankruptcy and elimination. Airlines lowered salaries and benefits in an attempt to avert, but this tactic led to protests and airline workers’ strikes and decreased production. Thousands of workers were let go as a result of the streamlining of activities. Some people were concerned that these initiatives might jeopardize safety, particularly if essential aircraft maintenance was put off to save money, but these concerns turned out to be baseless.

Iconic Defunct American Airlines

Pan Am

When Pan Am’s quality of service declined in the 1970s, the airline started to lose customers. Pan American World Airways company was once the top international airline operating out of the United States. It acquired National Airlines in 1980 to expand its regional network, but the transaction was expensive.

The airline started off by putting its valuable Pacific routes and the renowned Pan Am Building in New York up for sale. An additional blow came in 1988 with the tragedy of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Since 1928, Pan American has been the top international airline in America. It ceased operations in December 1991.

Image source: © Eduard Marmet/Wikimedia
Image source: © Eduard Marmet/Wikimedia

Braniff International Airways

From its distinctive multi-color paint to its Emilio Pucci air hostess costumes, the Texas-based carrier was among the most fascinating and vibrant businesses in the industry. Sadly, the airline failed in May 1982, having racked up debts of $733 million.

The brand’s resurgence in the past has been unsuccessful. Due to rising fuel costs in the chaotic oil market, interest on credit card rates, and stiff competition from airline ventures brought forth by the Airline Deregulation Act, the company discontinued air transport operations in May 1982.

Defunct airlines Braniff International Airways plane
Image source: (CC) Maarten Visser/Wikimedia,

National

National operated multiple shoreline flights as well as connections between Northeastern cities and Florida’s sunbird destinations beginning in 1934. Additionally, four European cities were covered. I.M. Pei created the “Sundrome” terminal for domestic at JFK airport, which is adjacent to where JetBlue is located currently. In 1980, Pan Am acquired National in order to gain a regional foothold in a sector that was rapidly deregulating and evolving.

The advertisement bragged that “Pan Am Goes National!” However, there were significant cultural differences between the two carriers, making the choice eventually viewed as catastrophic for Pan Am.

Defunct airlines National aircraft flying.
Image source: (CC) Aero Icarus/Wikimedia

Eastern Air Lines

Eastern Air Lines, based in Miami, was one of the most well-known names in the US airline industry. Sadly, after deregulation, worker unrest and a lack of ability to successfully compete hampered Eastern. After declaring bankruptcy in 1989, Eastern stopped operating flights in January 1991. It was one of the “Big Four” domestic flights established by the Spoils Conferences of 1930, and Eddie Rickenbacker served as the company’s first president.

From the 1930s until the 1950s, it had an almost stranglehold on air transport between New York and Florida, and it continued to rule this market for several decades after that. Eastern ran out of funds and was dissolved in 1991 as a result of ongoing labor problems and a devastating strike in 1989.

Eastern Airlines aircraft taxiing.
Image source: © Jon Proctor/Wikimedia

Midway Airlines

Following the deregulation of the US airline sector in 1979, Midway Airlines, a Chicago-based carrier, started operating. Midway Airlines’ Chicago South Side customers were strongly devoted to their native airline, and the airline was renowned for its amiable staff and competent service.

After-dinner chocolate wafer mints and warmed hand towels for the entire cabin were two of the popular in-flight services that first became popular with Midway’s corporate passengers. The airline filed for Chapter 11 in March 1991, blaming the high cost of jet fuel during the 1991 Gulf War and a decline in customers during the economic downturn that preceded it.

Midway airlines plane at an airport.
Image source: © Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/Wikimedia

Continental Airlines

With its headquarters in Houston, Texas, Continental Airlines, popularly known as Continental, was a significant American airline that was established in 1934. The extremely poor quality of Continental’s goods was one of the primary causes of the company’s demise. Among the problems were outdated airplanes with seats that were different colors, major disruptions on even short-haul flights, poor cuisine, a dirty fleet, and prolonged flying times compared to the competitors.

Texas International Airlines bought a majority stake in Continental in 1981. The businesses combined in 1982, relocated to Houston, and gradually grew into one of the biggest airlines in the nation despite experiencing workforce and financial struggles. This made it one of the most prosperous airlines in the United States. Continental isn’t really gone; rather, it’s just using a new brand and has licensing arrangements. In a $3 billion merger in 2012, the airline teamed up with United Airlines’ corporate business, the UAL Corporation. Although the Continental brand is no longer displayed on airplanes, United personnel continue to don the same attire as their Continental forebears.

Continental airlines aircraft flying.
Image source: (CC) Wo st 01/Wikipedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2010-07-15_B777_Continental_N78003_EDDF_03.jpg

Trans World Airlines

In 1930, Western Air and Transcontinental Air Transport were forced to merge, giving birth to the company that would later become known as Trans World Airlines. Following the Second World War, the airline quickly grew and competed with American and United for a customer base.

TWA became well-known in the aviation industry but finally perished in the 1980s at the hands of Carl Icahn, its second largest shareholder. As reported by USA Today: “Instead of focusing on TWA’s system, Icahn’s management concentrated on squeezing short-term profit out of it. TWA’s forced privatization left it in bankruptcy. The airline surrendered lucrative overseas routes and airport facilities to cover its additional loans.

American Airlines acquired the business in 2001. “American and United were able to survive because their CEOs had an unwavering commitment to becoming the best carriers.” Ours was preoccupied. The major corporate choices were absent, but we were always recognized for coming up with minor gimmicks like inflight movies, coffee, and [frozen] meals. —John Gratz, a TWA pilot between 1955 and 1991.

TWA aircraft landing at an airport.
Image source: © Jon Proctor/Wikimedia

Frontier Airlines

Arizona Airways, Challenger Airlines, and Monarch Airlines combined to form Frontier upon the merger. Its headquarters were in Denver, and it also had bases in Dallas, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; Salt Lake City, Utah; and St. Louis, Missouri. On August 28th, 1986, it finally succumbed to death, yet a small number of followers continue to enjoy its legacy and memorabilia online. In US aviation, Frontier Airlines remains a well-known brand.

The title is shown on the airplane livery of an ultra-low-cost airline. Two former employees of the venerable Frontier Airlines, which ran from 1950 to 1976, founded the current low-cost carrier in 1994 and is located in Denver, Colorado.

Frontier airlines aircraft taking off.
Image source: (CC) Aero Icarus/Wikimedia

Northwest

In Detroit, Northwest was established as a mail service in 1926. It eventually became one of just two American airlines with a considerable foothold in Asia, with services there beginning in the immediate post-World War II era.

Thus, it was known for many years as the “Northwest Orient.” The airline operated flights from a base in Tokyo to various locations, including Manila, Bangkok, Taipei, Hong Kong, Okinawa, Saipan, and Guam. Later, it spread throughout Western Europe and Scandinavia. The first transatlantic code-share cooperation, which has since become quite popular, was between Northwest and KLM. The company proposed a unification with Delta in 2008, and the brand soon vanished.

Northwest airlines aircraft landing.
Image source: © Ken Fielding, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenfielding

People Express Airlines

People Express served as a kind of prototype for modern low-cost airlines like Spirit and Frontier. The company started offering transatlantic flights to London with a Boeing 747 in 1983, and operations went smoothly for a while. But several variables, including declining profits from a growing network and frequently low fares, played a part in People Express’s downfall. In 1987, Continental acquired it.

PeoplExpress airliner stationed at an airport.
Image source: © Eduard Marmet/Wikimedia

Iconic Defunct Airlines from Europe and the UK 

Monarch Airlines

Bill Hodgson and Don Peacock formed Monarch Airlines, better known as Monarch, a British charter and scheduled carrier that was backed by the Mantegazza family of Switzerland. In 2004, the firm transitioned into a low-cost carrier, after which it fully stopped operating charter flights.

The airline’s main office was in Luton. In 2017, when Monarch filed for bankruptcy, it was the worst airline failure in UK history up to that moment, stranding about 100,000 travelers.

Defunct airlines Monarch airliner landing.
Image source: © Fabrizio Berni/Wikimedia

Thomas Cook Group Airlines

Thomas Cook Group plc, headquartered in London, United Kingdom, was one of the world’s leading luxury travel companies. The organization ran a number of airline affiliates that traveled to locations in Europe, North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia.

Thomas Cook Business reported on September 20, 2019, that negotiations with a number of important partners and financial companies to negotiate final agreements on the recapitalization and reorganization of the group had been unsuccessful. Thomas Cook’s administration came to the decision that businesses must go into forced bankruptcy as a response. Thomas Cook stated that all of the UK-based businesses in its group, particularly Thomas Cook Airlines, had shut down.

Thomas Cook airlines aircraft landing.
Image source: (CC) Alan Wilson/Wikimedia

Air Berlin

Air Berlin, which was established in 1978, formerly ranked second in both Europe and Germany in terms of the number of passengers it carried. After a significant stakeholder, Etihad Airways, decided to cease extending financial assistance to the airline that was going bankrupt, the company terminated operations in October 2017.

Air Berlin aircraft taking off.
Image source: (CC) Marvin Mutz/Wikimedia

Wow Air

In business from 2012 until 2019, Wow Air was an Icelandic ultra-low-cost airline. The airline was situated at Keflavk International Airport and had its main office in Reykjavk. As part of a larger strategy to develop in Asia, it also operated in India, in addition to the remainder of Europe, North America, and Iceland. When its operational firm ran out of trade on March 28, 2019, the airline immediately stopped flying.

WOW Air CEO Skuli Mogensen claimed in an interview with the Financial Times that the airline basically collapsed as a result of their choice to lease a fleet of wide-body Airbus A330 aircraft, which resulted in dramatically higher fuel expenses.

WOW Airlines aircraft in the sky.
Image source: (CC) MercerMJ/Wikimedia

Swissair

From the time of its creation in 1931 until its collapse in 2002, Swissair served as the country of Switzerland’s flag carrier. Given its financial soundness and reputation as a prominent international airline over the majority of its 71-year history, Swissair earned the nickname “Flying Bank” and became recognized as a national emblem and hallmark of Switzerland. As a consequence of the contentious “Hunter Strategy,” Swissair was plagued with rapid expansion by the late 1990s. Swissair Flight 111 crashed in 1998, killing everyone aboard, leading to an expensive lawsuit and bad press for the company.

Swissair’s assets saw a severe loss in value during the financial downturn that followed the September 11 attacks, suspending the already ailing airline in October 2001. Former national company Crossair changed its title to Swiss International Air Lines on April 1, 2002, and acquired the majority of Swissair’s routes, aircraft, and personnel. The Swissair Group is still around today and is being repossessed. In 2005, German airline Lufthansa acquired Swiss International Air Lines.

Swissair aircraft standing at an airport.
Image source: (CC) Aero Icarus/Wikimedia

Defunct Airlines from Asia 

CAAC Airlines 

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAACairline)’s section, originally known as the People’s Aviation Company of China, served as the People’s Republic of China’s sole domestic carrier. The dominance was dissolved in 1988, and CAAC Airlines was divided into six regional carriers.

These six carriers ultimately merged to become China’s top three airlines: Air China, China Southern Airlines, and China Eastern Airlines, which are all headquartered in Beijing. Nine huge airlines, including the big 3, make up the majority of the Chinese air transport industry nowadays. There are 3 major airlines, 11 low-cost airlines, and around 20 smaller scheduled carriers after that.

CAAC Airlines aircraft flying over a bay.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/boeingdreamscape/

Kingfisher Airlines Limited

The airline group Kingfisher Airlines Limited has its headquarters in India. It was founded in 2003 and began conducting business in 2005. It has a 50% ownership interest in low-cost carrier Kingfisher Red through its parent firm, United Breweries Group.

Kingfisher Airlines’ chairman and CEO, Vijay Mallya, said that the airline had become a “nightmare” as a result of the government’s unfavorable tax regime and increasing fuel costs. In terms of domestic air travel in India, Kingfisher Airlines held the second-largest share of the market up to December 2011. Nevertheless, since its beginning, the company had been continuously losing money, was heavily indebted, and on October 20, 2012, it was forced to halt services.

Kingfisher airlines aircraft taxiing.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/amitchat/2423610469/

Japan Air System Co., Ltd. (JAS)

Japan Air System was the smallest of the three major Japanese carriers. Although JAS’ interior route network included numerous regional airports that were not operated by the two main carriers, its foreign route network was far less than that of JAL and ANA. Several of the airline’s distinctive decals were created by Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, one of Japan’s most significant and famous filmmakers.

The Japan Times characterized them as being vivid and surreal. JAL and JAS declared their merger in November 2001. The decline in air travel after the terrorist events of September 11, 2001 in the United States contributed to the consolidation.

JAS aircraft ready for landing.
Image source: (CC) Amayagan/Wikimedia

FAQs

What airlines no longer exist?

Numerous iconic airlines fell into bankruptcy after the implementation of Airline Deregulation Act. Notable names include Pan Am, Trans World Airlines TWA, Continental, and Eastern Airlines.

What is the oldest airline still flying?

Although not the very first airline business in the United States, Delta Air Lines was founded in 1925 and is the oldest airline still operates today. The carrier’s original name was Huff Daland Dusters, an airborne crop dusting company based in Georgia. Delta Air Lines is one of the world’s largest airlines. The airline connects major and minor communities both domestically and internationally with a fleet of nearly 800 frontline planes based at nine hub airports across the country.

What major airline went out of business?

Pan American World Airways was one of the most well-known airline companies to go out of business. Pan Am was among the first and most recognizable airlines to go out of business in the twenty-first century.

What airline went out of business in 1997?

Western Pacific Airlines, Air South and Mahalo filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1997. 

What are some other American airlines that went defunct?

Some honorable defunct mentions in the airline industry are Central Airlines, Aloha airlines, Pace airlines, Boston Maine airways, Hooters air and Allegheny airlines.

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Eglė Bartaševičiūtė
A passionate traveler and an avid aviation enthusiast bringing you the most well-founded, accurate and up-to-date industry content.

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