Top 5 Airlines That Have Ceased to Exist

The aviation business is a lucrative one – millions of passengers travel by air daily and the numbers just keep going up. Hence why we are seeing various types of carriers pop up. From ultra low-cost to traditional airlines, they all have their traits, which we love them for.

While aviation is lucky for some, for others it went south and it all ended in bankruptcy. These are the top 5 biggest airlines that are no longer with us.

5. TWA

Trans World Airlines was one of the biggest carriers in the United States. With 190 aircraft and 132 destinations around the world, it seemed impossible that such a huge company would cease to exist. With 2 bankruptcies declared, the third one shut the company down. Negligence, failing to expand to new business opportunities in the Pacific and in cargo service were the mistakes that laid the foundation for the oncoming failure.

The final 2 nails in the coffin were the explosion of a Boeing 747-100 that exploded mid-air and the 2001 September 11th attacks. American Airlines acquired TWA and the airline ceased to exist. Though its colors are still flying. American Airlines tributes TWA by flying their old aircraft with a mixed livery of AA and TWA. By 2019, all Trans World Airlines aircraft should cease flying.

Mixed livery of American Airlines and TWA. Mixed livery of American Airlines and TWA.

4. Swissair

One of the oldest airlines in Europe, Swissair ceased to exist in 2002. Once called “Flying Bank” because of its financial stability, lots of horrible decisions in the 1990s forced the airline to declare bankruptcy. With over 150 destinations served and 76 aircraft in its fleet when it went down under in 2002, Swiss was one of the biggest carriers in the European market.

Trying to bite off more than you can chew was one of the reasons why it ceased operations. Between the 1980s and the 2000s, Swissair was constantly looking for opportunities to expand their presence in the European Market. After unsuccessfully trying to merge with Air France, Lufthansa, and British Airways the company, later on, acquired and bought shares from various smaller European carriers, instead of entering into an alliance.

The buying spree and the September 11 attacks finally grounded the airline on 31st of March, 2002. Crossair took over Swiss' operations, which later became Swiss International Air Lines.

Swissair Boeing 747 Swissair Boeing 747

3. Alitalia

Although the airline is still flying the bright blue skies, in 2017 Alitalia went into administration. The flag carrier of Italy went through a lot of mergers and financial trouble. A group of investors formed Alitalia in 2008 as a result of the merger of the “old” Alitalia and Air One, a bankrupt low-cost carrier in Italy.

After continuous losses throughout its existence, the airline wanted to reduce the expenses and went into negotiations with the workers. They rejected the plans and Alitalia started the bankruptcy process. Alitalia is currently on sale because the Italian government decided not to nationalize the airline.

And while the future of the airline is uncertain as it is still looking for buyers, we hope that it survives and turns its fortunes around. Not having an airline to fly the Pope is a travesty!

Pope Francis exiting an Alitalia plane. Pope Francis exiting an Alitalia plane. Pope Francis exiting an Alitalia plane.

2. Air Berlin

Established 40 years ago, Air Berlin was one of the major players in the European aviation industry. At its peak, it was the second largest German airline behind Lufthansa and the tenth-largest in Europe. The airline transferred 30 to 35 million passengers and owned just below 150 aircraft in its fleet.

After never really recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, the company experienced continuous losses. And after trying to restructure in 2016 and calling it the “new Air Berlin”, the company still never recovered. Cutting the destinations by double, focusing on their main hubs in Berlin and Düsseldorf, closing many bases and shifting focus to other routes and business travelers still did not help. In 2017 the company announced to its employees that it would cease operations amid financial turmoil. Lufthansa and easyJet, later on, bought the company’s assets and employed the former employees of Air Berlin.

Air Berlin aircraft in the airport. Air Berlin aircraft in the airport.

1. Pan American World Airways

Commonly known as Pan Am, the carrier was the biggest international air carrier in the United States. They were the pioneers of jet aircraft, jumbo jets, and digital reservation systems in the aviation world.

Pan Am at its height operated 150 aircraft, which served 86 countries. It had 5 hubs in the US, Europe, and Asia. Pan Am even had its own separate terminal in New York’s JFK, called the WorldPort. And the airline carried 29 million passengers in 1989 before bankruptcy in 1991.

So what happened?

Firstly, the 1973 oil crisis hit the airline hard. New Boeing 747s were ordered in the hopes of passenger numbers going up. Those hopes were dashed and the rising fuel prices hit the company hard. A lot of its fleet were inefficient aircraft and that only increased the operating costs. Secondly, as the times went on, the situation only worsened. The company sold assets that were not important. Routes that were not profitable were also discontinued. Because of ordering and canceling an order of the new Airbus aircraft, PanAm was forced to operate old and inefficient aircraft in its fleet.

And the final two bricks that brought the whole airline down were the terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103 and the Gulf War, which again increased the fuel prices massively and decreased the demand in air travel. And in 1991 the company filed for bankruptcy. Delta Airlines purchased the remaining profitable capital.

Pan Am's Airbus A310. Pan Am Airbus A310.

While these airlines might be gone (or gone soon, in Alitalia’s case) they will never be forgotten. Their impact, whether it is the innovative decisions or mistakes that others can learn from, they will forever be ingrained into the history of aviation.

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