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The Rise and Fall of RenoAir and the Amazing Hybrid American Transition Fleet

Photos by Matthew Desatoff.

When you think of now-defunct domestic airlines throughout the years, you probably remember the big ones — Eastern, Pan Am and etc. In reality, there have been many small airlines that have popped up around the country, only to cease operations after a few years in the air, or become swallowed up by one of the carriers that’s still around today.

Such is the case with Reno Air, a little commercial airline out of Reno that began in 1992, with their first flight nonstop from Reno to Seattle. They grew to establish other hubs in Nevada, Las Vegas and San Jose, and offered flights to many points in the western half of the United States and extending internationally into Canada.

An idea born from industry pros

Founded by industry guys from Frontier (the 1950-1986 version, not the animal-clad, low-cost aircraft we see today) and Midway Airlines, both of which had at that point become defunct, Reno Air seemed to be growing rapidly after their 1992 establishment, quickly expanding their service and creating new hubs. From the start, it seemed they would have a relationship with American Airlines, as their 1993 hub at San Jose would be leased gate space from American, and they joined up with the AAdvantage program to give their flyers credit on Reno Air flights. Soon, they would be calling themselves, “the biggest little airline in the world.”

The airline’s 1996 web page is still online, offering up all the nostalgic air travel feels you could want. A button advises you the site is best viewed on either Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer (which, don’t worry, the graphic says, it’s free), and interested travelers are urged to call on what looks to be a MicroTAC Ultra Lite. At the time, the airline’s slogan was “Discover a Better Low Fare Airline,” and they noted that, unlike other low-cost airlines, they provided advanced seat selection, advanced boarding passes, a frequent flyer program (AAdvantage), a first class (which you could upgrade to for only an extra fee of $25) and a new jet fleet. All of this, though, did not keep Reno Air from feeling some painful competition from Southwest.

On Aug. 30 of 1999, Reno Air would fly their last, as they were acquired by American Airlines, who was looking to expand its reach on western north-south routes, which just so happened to be Reno Air’s specialty. At the time, American kept on Reno Air’s aircraft, simply repainting the fuselage, but the various McDonnell Douglas MD-80 and -90 series jets were retired after 9/11, to reduce capacity.

The Amazing hybrid RenoAir/American Airlines Fleet

One of the most unique things about the acquisition was how the repainting of Reno Air’s fleet was done in such a piecemeal fashion. American had to repaint the aircraft but needed to keep the RenoAir operation flying to the max extent possible. This led to minor modifications of the scheme during scheduled downtime with an eventual repaint for the aircraft. Additionally, American decided against keeping the MD-87 and MD-90 subfleets. So those aircraft never received the full livery. Surprisingly though, American did paint the MD-90 in American colors with a white fuselage.

The standard Reno Air Scheme on a MD-80. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
A RenoAir MD-80 with the titles removed but tail still painted. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
A RenoAir MD-87 with the titles removed and part of the tail painted. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
A temporary AA adorns the partially scrubbed RenoAir tail. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
Only the RenoAir colors remain on the rudder of this MD-80. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
A RenoAir MD-90 is painted in all white with just the underbelly or RenoAir remaining. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
Another RenoAir MD-90 looks even more barren with just a hint of former RenoAir scheme with the black nose shield. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
AA temporary titles adorn this MD-80. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
With the RenoAir colors removed, this MD-80 is only denoted as American by the small sticker on the tail. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
Full American colors are applied to a white MD-80 fuselage. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
Full American Airlines colors are applied (with white instead of bare metal) to this former RenoAir MD-87. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.
The ultra-rare white MD-90 in full American Airlines scheme. Only 5 aircraft were painted like this one. The fleet was discarded to the desert and later picked up by Indonesia’s LionAir. Photo by Matthew Desatoff.

RenoAir returns…sort of

This would not be the end for Reno Air, however. Just two years ago, American Airlines brought Reno Air’s spirit with a Retrojet tribute and a special amenity kit for first class passengers. In Nov. 2015, a Boeing 737-800 was rolled out with livery in Reno Air colors. The tribute was part of an overall attempt by American to honor those airlines that have been absorbed by its brand over the years, such as TWA and AirCal.

Photo: American Airlines

Reno Air still has a following of individuals who were impacted by the airline’s presence. An online community offers memberships that even come with an @renoair.net email address, mostly targeted at former employees.

Editors Note: Special thanks to Matthew Desatoff for his many unique photos.

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