Observation Deck

The Name Game

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The track record of resurrecting old airline names is poor, with multiple repeat failures

As of the publication of this blog entry, I note that my ATW colleague Kathy Young’s “Time Capsule” is titled “Eastern Renewal”, and discusses the efforts that are planned to get this historic name back onto the airways in the U.S. This begs the question, however, of why there is an interest in doing this.

In recent times, there has been shrinkage in the number of U.S. major carriers; the remaining six large legacy carriers have coalesced into the “Big Three”, for example. At the same time, it’s hard to argue that there are many places with large traffic bases in the U.S. that are significantly underserved. Yes, several hubs either have been, or are in the process of, being downgraded or eliminated (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Memphis), but it is doubtful that any white knights are likely to appear and save these cities from their present distress.

So, there are effectively two concerns about the combination of start-up airlines and old airline names. One answer, of course, is nostalgia. These carriers were, generally both industry pioneers and in many cases, industry giants. Eastern was one of the original “Big Four” carriers (American, TWA and United being the others); Pan American was noted as the brand whose recognition was exceeded globally only by Coca-Cola.

Nostalgia is one factor. Even though both of these airlines left the scene over twenty years ago, in 1991, there are still a number of former employees that would like to be able to resurrect their old employers and thereby eliminate some of the pain and stigma associated with their demise. What this generally doesn’t take into account is that the economically-desirable characteristics of the historic carriers have, in virtually all cases, been taken over by other entities. Eastern’s Shuttle is now effectively at American, via US Airways; AA now also dominates EA’s Miami headquarters’ market. Pan Am’s former Pacific route system has been at United for almost three decades now;, they were followed by PA’s former slots at London Heathrow.

It’s not that name re-cycling hasn’t been tried; thus far, however, it’s difficult to point to any successful application of this tactic. The first large carrier to fail following U.S. Deregulation, Braniff, has been re-incarnated twice. Both also failed. The Pan Am name has had a stranger afterlife career. It has been used by carriers operating in low-cost/niche markets, as well as a now-defunct regional/commuter carrier. It now adorns railway equipment for what was, essentially, the Boston & Maine and Maine Central Railroads; interestingly, these two were the founders of what became Northeast Airlines.

Another name, Midway, has been used for two different post-Deregulation startups. The original, headquartered at and serving principally Chicago’s Midway Airport failed after trying to open a second hub at Philadelphia; the second version moved from Chicago to North Carolina, and also failed. Taking a less-known name from the relatively distant (1967) past, Panagra operated charter services based in Florida, but also no longer exists.

An exception that has fared better to date is the second iteration of Frontier, although it has recently been sold by Republic to a new management team, and is now in the process of recasting itself as an “Ultra low-cost” carrier. The entity that acquired the original Frontier, PeoplExpress Airlines, is in the process of attempting to re-launch itself; thus far it can be seen on Facebook and Twitter, but not yet in the skies. Over the years, I’ve run across multiple entities interested in bringing TWA back from the dead, as well, but haven’t spotted any at the airport.

It’s not difficult to understand that their proponents want to have another shot at the airline business, and maybe, in the process, to right some previous wrongs, but it’s also easy to understand why money to finance these efforts in what is now a fairly mature industry might not be readily forthcoming. A lot more than just a well-known name/brand is necessary to succeed in any business, not just airlines, and “the lowest fares in the air” are probably more likely to accrue to the benefit of travelers than investors.

And finally, what might the prospects for the new Eastern be? Kathy sums this up well: “We wish the new Eastern well should it gain approval. Wearing the Eastern logo will require a lot of gumption.” Time will tell, but I suspect that the winning bet won’t be on long-term success.

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