December 1, 2001 was a sad day in St. Louis. For over 77 years TWA provided commercial service to millions of passengers around the globe. This day would be TWA’s last day to operate as an independent airline.
The proud heritage of TWA
TWA, also known as Trans World Airlines was in service for 77 years, from 1924 to 2001. TWA’s corporate history dates back to 1930. The airline was originally formed to create a transcontinental route from New York City to Los Angeles in a Ford Trimotor aircraft, with intermediate stops along the way. Along with American, United, and Eastern, TWA was one of the “big four” domestic airline companies in the United States.
Howard Hughes acquired control of TWA in 1939, then expanded it to serve Europe, Asia and the Middle East. This was the heyday of TWA. Hughes gave up control of TWA in the 1960s. From 1967 to 1972, TWA was the world’s third largest airline, in terms of passenger miles flown. In 1969, TWA carried the most transatlantic passengers of any airline.
Icahn ran the airline into the ground
The nineties were a devastating decade for TWA. The airline was bounced back and forth between holding companies. TWA became heavily in debt, and filed Chapter 11 twice in the early 1990s. The explosion of TWA flight 800 didn’t help matters any. Flight 800 was a Boeing 747 on its way to Paris in 1996 when it exploded, killing all 230 people onboard.
In the late ‘90s, TWA began a turnaround plan. New jets like the 717-200 and 757 were meant to revitalize the flailing airline. However, a terrible ticketing revenue setup with activist investor Carl Icahn and the economic downturn in 2000 doomed TWA once and for all.
The End: American buys TWA
American Airlines purchased the airline in 2000. The slogan “Two great airlines. One great future.” was meant to highlight the opportunity of the new ‘merged’ airline. The merger was supposed to be a good thing. St. Louis provided a reliever hub for American’s overcrowded O’hare hub. TWA’s fleet of MD-80s also were supposed to provide American additional capacity. Unfortunately, the terrorist attacks on September 11th meant that much of TWA’s infrastructure was superfluous and would be dismantled instead. Most of TWA’s pilots and flight attendants were also furloughed. St. Louis Lambert airport became a shell of its final self.
Today, TWA lives on (sort of) in the form of an American Airlines heritage jet. The Boeing 737-800 still flies in a modified TWA livery today. There is also a TWA hotel at JFK that proudly serves up 1960s nostalgia.