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Trans-World Airlines

By Asif Siddiqi, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission

Like the other major airlines of the United States, TWA traces its history back to the airmail delivery companies of the 1920s. Most of these companies made their money delivering mail, and in fact, usually incurred losses when carrying passengers. One company that attempted to break into the passenger market was Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), formed on May 16, 1928, by a conglomerate of high-powered business interests under Clement M. Keys, a Canadian-born businessman who had begun his career working for The Wall Street Journal. Keys decided to offer a coast-to-coast service for passengers that would combine both air and rail travel. Passengers taking TAT would take a two-day journey across the country, riding Pullman railway sleepers at night and flying Ford Trimotors during the day. Although Keys enlisted the help of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh to draw attention to his plan, TAT eventually lost money with its coast-to-coast service.

During this time, Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown was handing out mail contracts to airlines for specific routes. He believed that two airlines should not operate over the same route, especially if both were receiving government mail payments. Brown suggested that TAT combine its services with another airline, Western Air Express, formed in July 1925. The two companies merged on July 24, 1930, to form the new Transcontinental and Western Air, Inc. (TWA). The new airline received its first mail contract immediately and began flying coast-to-coast flights on October 25, 1930, with an overnight stop at Kansas City.

As with the other “Big Four” airlines (American, United, and Eastern) that dominated the early years of U.S. airline industry, the history of TWA was associated with a number of famous personalities. William John Frye, a former Hollywood stunt flier and TWA's first director of operations, was instrumental in determining the specifications of the Douglas DC-1 and DC-2 aircraft, the first in a series of aircraft that would revolutionize commercial aviation. In 1934, at the young age of 30, Frye became president of TWA. A licensed pilot, he made sure that TWA was at the forefront of modern technological advances, piloting the single DC-1 that Douglas built. In 1938, for example, he put in an order for the new 33-passenger Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the first commercial plane with a pressurized passenger cabin. He convinced a quirky millionaire named Howard Hughes to finance this purchase. Hughes became the principal stockholder of TWA in April 1939.

Like other national airlines, TWA used its planes in support of the U.S. military during World War II. After the war, TWA's most prized target was the transcontinental route, a route that American Airlines, TWA, and United battled over for a decade. Of these airlines, TWA was the most aggressive in its business strategy. The airline put the new and modern Lockheed Constellation into service from New York to Los Angeles on March 1, 1946. Although United also introduced transcontinental service on the same day with its DC-4 aircraft, TWA came out the winner since the Constellation was much superior to the DC-4. In 1950, the airline retained its old acronym, but officially changed its name to Trans World Airlines.

As the major airlines continued to compete over various routes through the 1940s, TWA gained a reputation for banking its future on the most advanced aircraft available. For example, as United and American began using the DC-6 aircraft, TWA responded by introducing the Lockheed L.1049 Super Constellation on September 10, 1952. The new aircraft had a 35 percent greater passenger carrying capacity than its predecessor. TWA was the first airline to inaugurate regularly scheduled nonstop transcontinental service between Los Angeles and New York on October 19, 1953.

Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation

While United and American opted for the DC-6, TWA launched the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation seen here over New York.

Photo courtesy TWA

TWA also entered the international market. At the end of World War II, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), the organization that distributed routes for U.S. airlines, decided to allow other airlines to share in Pan American's monopoly of international routes. TWA was one of the airlines granted this right, with permission to fly to Europe and India. TWA began regular New York-to-Paris service in February 1946. This route was later extended to Cairo, Egypt. TWA battled hard with Pan American for various international routes, but it initially failed to exploit its key advantage of being able to connect international flights with domestic ones, a handicap for Pan Am, which did not fly any domestic routes. TWA was also late in introducing jet service internationally, preferring instead to focus on domestic jet services. TWA's first regularly scheduled jet flight took place on November 23, 1959—a New York-London-Frankfurt flight – a year after its main rivals. It took several years for the airline to regain its competitive advantage lost because of this delay.

The immediate postwar years were not good for TWA. The airline faced serious mechanical problems with its fleet of Constellations. Its pilots also went on strike. Perhaps TWA's most well publicized problems had to do with Howard Hughes. His mysterious and eccentric manner, combined with his lack of interest in corporate decision-making and ventures into other activities, did not help TWA's fortunes. After a number of disagreements over corporate policy, Hughes fired Frye in 1947. In fairness though, Hughes did do much good for TWA. For example, he had sponsored the development of the Lockheed Constellation, the first civil airliner to challenge the domination of Douglas aircraft. He also managed to gain for TWA the distinction of being the only airline with both transcontinental and transatlantic routes.

By the late 1950s, however, Hughes had become such a recluse that one of TWA's presidents never met the man even once during his tenure in office. TWA was caught in a spiral of debt at the time, and it cost Hughes his hold on the company. In 1961, after TWA filed a suit against Hughes, he was forced to surrender absolute control of TWA. He sold his remaining stock in the company by 1965.

TWA continued to remain a powerful player, both in the international and national markets, through the 1960s and 1970s. In 1961, it became the first airline to introduce in-flight movies. In 1967, it acquired the entire chain of Hilton Hotels. In July 1969, TWA managed to do what no one could have predicted a few years before: overtake Pan American as the world's number one transatlantic airline. In February 1970, only one month after Pan Am, TWA began flying the Boeing 747 jumbo jet on the New York-to-Los Angeles route.

TWA's fortunes began to dim in the 1980s in the wake of deregulation of the commercial aviation industry. TWA's management even briefly considered selling to the infamous Frank Lorenzo, the man at the helm of Continental Airlines who had gained a reputation for his hardheaded financial dealings. In the end, in September 1985, TWA accepted a bid from another corporate raider, Carl Icahn, who bought up most of the TWA stock. The following year, the new TWA acquired Ozark Airlines.


A pair of TWAs - a Boeing 727 and a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar as seen at La Guardia, April 1981.

Image courtesy of AirNikon. Find more of his photos at


Although TWA gained by the demise of Pan Am by acquiring its international routes, the airline eventually filed for bankruptcy in January 1992 after problems with increasing debt. It sold some of its key routes to other airlines at the time. In January 1993, Icahn finally relinquished all control over the company, which was now under the control of a management committee appointed by employees, unions, and creditors. After several reorganizations in the 1990s, TWA's financial outlook seemed to improve by the end of the decade. In December 1998, as part of plans to expand its routes and flights, it announced the order of 125 new aircraft, the largest acquisition in the company's history.

Hopes for a new future were thwarted once again by financial problems and bankruptcy. On April 9, 2001, TWA's 75-year existence as an independent airline came to an end when American Airlines purchased TWA's assets. TWA flew its last official flight on December 1, 2001, ending an era in American commercial aviation.

Note: This article was commissioned by and first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author and NASA.


Allen, Oliver E. The Airline Builders. Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books, 1981.
Davies, R.E.G. Airlines of the United States Since 1914. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982
Heppenheimer, T.A. Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.
Leary, William M. Editor. Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography: The Air Industry. New York: Facts on File, 1992.



Share Your Memories!

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Your Memories Shared!

"My family flew on TWA from Kennedy airport to O'Hare one evening in late July, 1977. I figured that the plane would be a new one--or at least it would have been recently overhauled. (It was painted with a new logo that the airline was applying to its aircraft. )

But for a new or overhauled aircraft--it was a Lockheed L-1011--there was an interesting problem: the window by our seats seemed to leaking--there was an annoying hiss and the inner panel was out of its frame. We summoned a flight attendant and she said nothing was wrong.

My mother later said that the captain came back to take a look, but I don't remember seeing any of the flight crew. I also read in a book called This Is Your Captain Speaking (I think it had a 1973 copyright date) that a small leak could be handled by the pressurization systems in the jetliners of the Super70s.

There was no problem with the window during the flight, but I thought that TWA should have taken better care of its aircraft. Perhaps the faulty window was indicative of TWA during its final years."




Image courtesy TWA

Airline: TWA

AKA: Trans World Airlines, Transcontinental and Western Air

Location: US

Flew: October 25, 1930 - April 9, 2001

Status: Purchased by American Airlines, 2001

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