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The History of Trans World Airlines

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay By Robert Waldvogel

From its inception, TWA, or at least its predecessor, was ambitious, transcending the traditional mail-only airmail transport concept with the addition of passengers, incorporating inter-modal means by combining surface, or railroad, segments, and setting its sights on the West Coast from the east, to significantly reduce the transcontinental journey by means of both wings and wheels.

Originally known as Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), which was formed on May 16, 1928 by a conglomeration of noted business interests, it inaugurated service on the route laid out by Charles Lindbergh, plying skies by day in a Ford TriMotor and the rails by night, which enabled passengers to retire in Pullman sleeper comfort. But the venture proved less than lucrative.

Mail, as had already been proven, would remain the airplane’s financial lift, albeit over much shorter segments, and contingent upon TAT’s authority for it by Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown was his suggestion that it merge with another competitor, Western Air Express (WAE), to avoid otherwise duplicate government payments.

Re-designated Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA) after its July 24, 1930 merger, it was granted the mail contract for the 36-hour journey that remained faithful to its “transcontinental” name, but with an overnight stop midway across, specifically in Kansas City.

Despite their soulless statuses, airlines invariably assumed the personalities of their owners and leaders.

John “Jack” Frye, one-time Hollywood stunt flyer and the carrier’s first director of operations, was instrumental in determining the specifications for TWA’s all-metal, low-wing, 12-passenger Douglas DC-1 and its successor, the 14-passenger DC-2, aeronautical responses to Boeing’s B-247, whose cramped cabin was hindered by the wing spar which traversed it. A licensed pilot, he flew the first Douglas design, while the DC-2 was inaugurated into service on May 18, 1934 from Columbus, Ohio, to New York.

The even larger and wider DC-3 entered the route system three years later.

Quirky to the point of eccentric, but dripping with money, Howard Hughes was attracted to the fledgling carrier, who became its principle stockholder in 1939.

Its first pressurized airliner, the quad-engine Boeing 307 Stratoliner, entered service on the one-stop transcontinental route from New York to Los Angeles via Chicago on July 8 of the following year.

Although the World War II-necessitated military hiatus robbed it of equipment and route development, its end signaled the beginning-of another battle, with American and United over the transcontinental crossing, which had given rise to its name. Instrumental in the design of the Lockheed L-049 Constellation, with its signature aerofoil-shaped fuselage and triple tail, Hughes ensured TWA’s competitive advantage with an aircraft that was superior to United’s DC-4s, both of which entered service on March 1, 1946. But the Lockheed counterpart enabled the carrier to spread its wings across the Atlantic, with a New York-Gander-Shannon-Paris route, which was later extended to Rome and Bombay, breaking Pan Am’s international monopoly after the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) had granted it the route authority.

Four years later, its “T-W-A” abbreviation stood for its now official “Trans World Airlines” designation.

Yet the aircraft manufacturer war-for sales-continued to rage. While American and United introduced higher-capacity Douglas DC-6s, TWA, riding on Hughes’ influence, countered with the Lockheed L-1049A Super Constellation, which offered a 35-percent passenger capacity increase over the earlier model, and facilitated the inauguration of the first nonstop transcontinental sector, from Los Angeles to New York, on October 19, 1953.

The definitive L-1649A Starliner, which introduced a longer wing and the greater range its fuel capacity provided, enabled the Los Angeles-San Francisco-London polar route to be inaugurated in October of 1957.

Despite Hughes’ positive influence in the carrier’s expansion and modernization, he participated in few corporate decisions, fired Frye, sank into reclusion, and allowed it to spiral into debt, prompting the airline’s law suit against him, which forced him to surrender his majority control. He sold his remaining stock in 1965.

Entering the jet age, TWA inaugurated Boeing 707-120 service on the transcontinental route between New York and Los Angeles on March 20, 1959, and the type entered the international arena nine months later, on November 23.

Medium-range domestic routes were served with the four-engine Convair CV-880 when it was introduced on January 12, 1961 and was soon replaced by the tri-engine Boeing 727-100 in 1964 and the twin-engine Douglas DC-9-10 in 1966.

Taking delivery of its first wide body Boeing 747-100 on December 31, 1969, the year it had usurped Pan Am as the largest US transatlantic carrier, it became the first airline to offer US domestic service with it on its signature Los Angeles-New York segment on February 25 of the following year. The Lockheed L-1011-1 TriStar, its second widebody, followed in 1972.

Establishing hubs in New York, St. Louis, Chicago, and Kansas City, it served 49 US domestic and 16 European destinations by the end of the decade, the latter including Athens, Barcelona, Dublin, Frankfurt, Lisbon, London-Heathrow, Madrid, Malaga, Milan, Nice, Paris, Rome, Santa Maria, Shannon, Terceira, and Vienna, along with Cairo and Egypt in North Africa and Tel Aviv in the Middle East. As the seventh largest airline in the world, it carried more passengers between the United States and Europe than any other, including on the Los Angles-London polar route, and counted a 1979 total of 22,653,000.

While Hughes had ultimately proven detrimental to the airline, another famous figure, Carl Icahn, a corporate raider who purchased most of TWA’s stock in 1985 when deregulation-sparked financial perils left it little choice if it wished to remain airborne, left his own tarnished image on it, taking the once-illustrious international carrier and turning it into a low-cost tatter.

A brief reprieve signaled promise when it acquired Ozark Air Lines, giving it a monopoly at its St. Louis hub, and the cherry-picked international routes of similarly spiraling Pan Am offered it attractively priced assets. But its precarious financial burden broke its back, causing it to sell, piecemeal, its own strengths, particularly its London routes from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York to American for $445 million in 1991, a year before it was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Another route authority purchase, by USAir for service to London from Baltimore and Philadelphia, infused its coffers with a little more cash.

An August 24, 1992 agreement with TWA’s three major unions swapped concessions for a 45-percent stake of it, and Icahn resigned as chairman the following January, leaving the bird a plucked carcass.

Promise once again peaked when it emerged from bankruptcy on November 3, 1993, having now counted twin-engine, widebody Boeing 767-200s, narrow body MD-80s, and Boeing 757-200s in its fleet, but it re-entered it less than two years later, in June.

Nevertheless, wings, once clipped by deregulation and a tarnished image associated with low-cost carriers, were virtually impossible to re-establish, leaving AMR Corporation’s American Airlines to acquire most of its assets and supply financing for its bankruptcy filing on January 10, 2001 after a three-quarter century flight as one of the “big four” airlines after Eastern, United, and the one that kept its spirit in the skies.

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