Harnessing US airline deregulation, Capitol Air was one of several carriers catapulted to temporary success after transitioning itself from charter to scheduled operations.
Founded on June 11, 1946 as Capitol Airways by Jesse F. Stallings, Richmond McGinnes, and Francis Roach, Army Air Corps pilots, it was incorporated in Delaware, but headquartered in Smyrna, Tennessee. It initially operated twin-engine Douglas DC-3s and Curtiss C-46 Commandos.
Military service was a significant part of its early history. In 1954, for example, it carried priority freight for the US Air Force and two years later was contracted to transport passengers for the Logistic Air Support (LOGAIR) Program. The Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed L-749A Constellation, its first quad-engine pistonliners, facilitated international charter expansion.
“One (of BOAC’s 749As) had served Capitol Airways, which had three other 749As, having purchased the first from Avianca in 1957,” according to M. J. Hardy in The Lockheed Constellation (Arco Publishing Company, 1973, p. 51). “Capitol later built up a fleet of a dozen Super Constellations.”
By the end of the decade, its US operations were relocated from Tennessee to Wilmington, Delaware’s New Castle Airport.
The Constellation fleet continued to increase with acquisition of the first Super, or stretched-fuselage, L-1049G in January of 1960, which had been produced for Howard Hughes and was first delivered to him four years earlier, on February 24. It marked the beginning of a significant number of them.
“In the summer of 1962, Seaboard World Airways leased seven of its Super Constellations (three L-1049Ds and four L-1049Hs) to Capitol Airways, which, exercising an option to purchase them, eventually bought two L-1049Ds and an L-1049H,” according to Hardy (ibid, p. 73).
Caribbean/Mexican and transatlantic operating authorizations, respectively received on September 30, 1965 and April 5, 1966, enabled it to expand its charter service, whose lower fares were facilitated by lower operating costs, high daily aircraft utilization of between 12 and 15 hours, reduced overhead expenses, high-density, single-class accommodation, and guaranteed load factors mostly supplied by tour operator bookings.
Nevertheless, it still provided this service for the military, one of its principle contracts entailing a transatlantic route from Frankfurt’s Rhein-Main Air Base to Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, with an intermediate stop at the Bradley Air National Guard Base in Windsor Locks, Connecticut.
Although its fleet of 17 standard-and stretched-fuselage Constellations had constituted its long-range workhorse during the 14-year period from 1955 to 1968, they began to be replaced in the 1960s with the first JT4A turbojet-powered Douglas DC-8-33s. Aircraft N900CL, one of these, was initially operated by Pan Am. These were supplemented by the JT8D turbofan-powered DC-8-54JT Jet Traders, which featured forward, left, upward-opening cargo doors, enabling airlines to carry all-freight, all-passengers, or mixtures of the two on the main deck.
“Introduction of the convertible aircraft led to a new type of customer, the supplemental carrier,” according to Terry Waddington in Douglas DC-8 (World Transport Press, 1996, p. 52). “The first to place an order was Trans International Airlines (TIA), a military charter specialist…”
1967 proved to be an important year in Capitol’s history. On March 21 it became a public company and the following day it added “international” to its name, thus becoming Capitol International Airways.
Stretched-fuselage DC-8-61s, configured for 252 single-class passengers in a three-three arrangement with a single aisle and acquired from Eastern Airlines, soon supplemented the standard-length DC-8-33s and -54s, facilitating low seat-mile cost military and civilian charter operations. At the beginning of the 1970s, it relocated to Smyrna, Tennessee.
Deregulation served as the threshold to scheduled service. Granted such authority in September of 1978, it inaugurated passenger operations to Brussels from New York the following year, on May 5, and from Chicago and Boston on June 19.
Like other international supplemental carriers, such as Trans International (later Transamerica) and World Airways, it applied the low-cost, low-fare, single-class charter formula to the scheduled arena, attaining low seat-mile cost, high-load-factor profitability and challenging incumbent carriers. Branded “Sky Saver Service,” it consistently attracted capacity-exceeding demand and sparked explosive growth. Annual passenger totals progressively increased- from 611,400 in 1980 to 1,150,000 in 1981, and to 1,824,000 in 1982.
Passengers, unaware of deregulation-molded carriers whose low fares could only attain profitability with used aircraft, high-density seating, and lower-wage nonunion employees, often voiced criticism about Capitol Air’s non-interline policy and refusal to provide meals and hotel rooms during delays and compensation during missed, other-airline connections. Nevertheless, its fares in the New York-Los Angeles market ranged from an unrestricted $149 based upon a round-trip purchase to a one-way $189, while the majors’ unrestricted tariffs in the market hovered at the $450 mark. As a result, Capitol Air’s load factors exceeded 90 percent.
Its JFK ground operations, initially located in the Delta-Northwest Terminal, was mostly manual, with stamped boarding passes, the old-fashioned peel-and-stick seat charts—with selection itself moved from the main check-in counter to a mid-terminal service center and finally to the departure gate-luggage destination tags, hand-written tickets, filled-in weight-and-balance sheets, and uncontainerized baggage and cargo loading. However, the reservations system was computerized (Gabriel I), its call center was located in Garden City, Long Island, and air and hotel packages were offered through its Sky Saver Tour department.
A significant major carrier image change occurred in 1981 when Capitol International acquired its first two widebody DC-10-10s registered N904WA and N905WA, from Western. Configured for 345 single-class passengers in a two-five-two forward and three-four-three mid and aft cabin arrangement, they were deployed transcontinentally and to the Caribbean, offering audio-visual infight entertainment. Subsequent DC-10 acquisitions, with seating for 360, featured a uniform ten-abreast configuration throughout.
1982 marked several improvements: a name change to the more simplified “Capitol Air,” a relocation to the British Airways Terminal at JFK, an expanded system timetable with other-carrier flight connections, and an upgrade to Braniff’s Cowboy computerized reservations system with expanded automated functions.
Two other aircraft types broke the Douglas/McDonnell-Douglas DC-8-61, DC-8-63, and DC-10-10 monopoly—a single Boeing 727-200 registered N590CA and a single, 315-passenger Airbus A300B4-103 registered D-AHLZ.
Capitol Air advertised itself as “Capitol Air, the lowest fare,” according to its December 1, 1982 – March 15, 1983 system timetable. “Serving the public for 36 years,” it emphasized.
It explained its “Capitol Ideas” as follows: “The finest possible service at the lowest possible fares-Super DC-8 and widebody DC-10 jet fleet; complimentary meals, snacks, and beverages; full bar service; movies and stereo on all DC-10 and some DC-8 flights (specifically to Zurich to compete with Swissair); duty-free shopping on international flights; modern airport terminals; and streamlined baggage service.”
It considered its reach as “the star-spangled skies of Capitol Air.,” stating that “there are now 13 Capitol cities of the world—with more to come:” Aguadilla, Boston, Brussels, Chicago, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Puerto Plata, San Francisco, San Juan, and Zurich. “Best of all,” it pointed out, “Capitol’s Star-Spangled Service includes heavenly prices wherever we go.”
It offered daily nonstop flights from JFK to Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in the US, with two round-trip frequencies to Los Angeles (Flights Cl 211 and CL 209) and one one-stop via Chicago (Flight CL 219); Aguadilla and San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean, with the San Juan outbound sectors operating as Flight CL 215 and CL 217); and Brussels, Frankfurt, and Zurich in Europe. Other, JFK-bypassing segments included Chicago-Miami-San Juan, Chicago-Los Angeles, Chicago-San Francisco, and Boston-Philadelphia-San Juan.
It explained its fares as follows: “We’re the ones who started it all. Capitol originated the concept of one-class, low-fare, unrestricted flights. With no advance purchase, no minimum stay, and no hassle. And we refuse to be undersold for this kind of service. “So, we keep tabs on the competition to make sure our fares are always the lowest. And we keep fares low without cutting back on our Star-Spangled Service—the kind you always expect on the more expensive airlines.”
“How low are Capitol’s fares?” it queried. “Our everyday unrestricted fares often save you up to 50% compared to economy class on other airlines. That’s right; we said economy, not first class. No wonder Capitol is the best buy in the sky wherever we fly! Come take us up on it.”
Capitol’s successful low-cost, full-service challenge to the major airlines, such as American, TWA, and United in the US, as well as to Lufthansa, Sabena, and Swissair across the Atlantic, was brief, as they temporarily lowered their own fares to retain or regain market share, forcing it to serve competition-devoid niche routes, like those to Aguadilla and Puerto Plata. But inroads into these markets were eventually also made by the established operators.
George Batchelor, Capitol Air’s latest owner, progressively transferred assets to Arrow Air, an airline which itself had transitioned from charter to scheduled service and which was also under his financial control, leaving Capitol Air employees without paychecks for several weeks.
Finally, now dismantled and deep in debt, it was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and on November 23, 1984 ceased operations, ending a 38-year career as a charter and scheduled passenger carrier.
Great history of Capitol. Note that the LOGAIR flights were flown in C-46 and Argosy aircraft, and the DC-8 shown in new livery looks like a B-727.