From Pilgrim Airlines to American Eagle: Flying the Northeast

Pilgrim Twin Otter in original livery
Pilgrim Twin Otter in original livery

Having planted its Connecticut roots in 1962 when Joseph M. Fugere founded Pilgrim Airlines for the purpose of linking Groton with JFK, it first took to the skies on April 1 of that year, using Piper PA-24 Comanches that belonged to Fugere’s New London Flying Service fixed base operator (FBO). Drawing upon a passenger base from the local General Dynamics Electric Boat Division, he was also able to offer charter service to Washington, which was discontinued after Allegheny Airlines was granted scheduled rights for the route.

Nevertheless, both New Haven and New London became the logical, cross-Sound links to JFK, either enabling commuters to avoid the lengthy, Interstate 95 drive to New York, or passengers to connect with other carriers for flights to their final destination. Operating two Piper Aztecs and three Beech 18s, Pilgrim, whose name-indicative livery featured a Pilgrim’s hat, also established an intrastate link between the two coastal airports, and Bridgeport and Hartford.

In October of 1966, Pilgrim became the first U.S. carrier to operate the 19-passenger de Havilland of Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter, which eventually became its northeast workhorse, when it placed aircraft N121PM, the original, short-nose -100 version, into service. It ultimately wore Pilgrim’s more colorful rainbow paint scheme.

Progressive expansion indicated Pilgrim’s popularity. Aside from continuing its intrastate Bridgeport, Hartford/Springfield, New Haven, and New London/Groton route system, it served eight other Northeast destinations: Boston, Manchester, New York-JFK, New York-La Guardia, Providence, and Washington-National. It also touched down in two transborder cities-Montreal and Ottawa. 

According to its October 31,1982 system timetable, Pilgrim offered at least fifteen daily flights from the two New York airports to New Haven and New London, assessing $35.00 fares to the former and $39.00 ones to the latter.

 In 1984, it carried just over 300,000 annual passengers. Part of the airline’s expansion stemmed from its acquisition of its former NewAir competitor, enabling it to establish a monopoly after adopting its mostly overlapping route system and adding its four Twin Otters to Pilgrim’s existing six.

Pilgrim F.28 Fellowship Jet
Pilgrim F.28 Fellowship Jet

NewAir

NewAir itself, which was the second carrier to plant the seed that ultimately grew into Business Express and American Eagle, began as New Haven Airways, whose general offices were located at Tweed New Haven Airport. Established for the purpose of linking the state with the major New York airports and thus billing itself as “Connecticut’s Airline Connection,” it operated a few 18-passenger Embraer EMB-110 Bandeirantes and 36-passenger Shorts SD-360s.

Its September 1,1983 timetable, which advertised “More New York Service” and “’Better Philadelphia Service,” listed flights to nine Northeast airports, including Baltimore, Islip, New Haven, New London/Groton, Newark, New York-JFK, New York-La Guardia, Philadelphia, and Washington-National. Twenty weekday roundtrips, requiring 30 minutes for the aerial hop over Long Island Sound to its New Haven home base, were offered from the three New York airports, while two were scheduled from Islip’s Long Island MacArthur, whose Connecticut coast proximity shaved ten minutes off of the flying time.

An early interline connection agreement with Eastern Airlines enabled passengers to accrue frequent flyer miles in its program. “Eastern Airlines now extends its Frequent Travel Bonus Program to include travel on NewAir,” according to its timetable. “No matter where you fly on NewAir, Eastern will credit you with 500 free miles and will keep your travel records for you.”

Acquired by Pilgrim and thus enabling that carrier to eliminate its competition, NewAir lost its identity and the EMB-110s and SD-360s in its fleet. Instead, Pilgrim purchased a new aircraft type, of which it eventually operated five.

The high-wing, twin-turboprop Fokker F.27 Friendship, with four-abreast seating for 44 passengers, galley and lavatory provision, and flight attendant service gave Pilgrim a large-airline image. It advertised, “New F.27 service: New Haven-Washington and Groton-Washington,” but the type also operated the Canadian routes. Flights with its new flagship were identified with boldface type in its timetable.

Typical of 1980s schedules, one of its own pointed out that, although not required, “we would appreciate your reconfirmation 24 hours before departure” and, while it made every effort to operate on time, it could not “accept responsibility for consequences arising from delays or missed connections.” Baggage allowance for those connections was 44 pounds.

By the end of 1985, the combined Pilgrim and NewAir had inaugurated service to Albany, Burlington, Newark, Philadelphia, and Toronto. From the two New York airports it offered anywhere from three to eleven weekday nonstops to Hartford, Manchester, New Haven, New London/Groton, Newark, Ottawa, and Providence. From Islip it operated to Albany, the two coastal Connecticut cities, and Washington.

In its December 1 timetable, it advertised, “Fly Pilgrim throughout the Northeast and Canada.” Equipment was denoted by flight numbers: the Twin Otter with flight numbers 100 to 599 and the F.27 Friendship with flight numbers 1 to 99 and 700 to 799. But there was one other set of them—that is, from 800 to 899, and they designated a new aircraft type, the Fokker F.28 Fellowship.

In March of 1984, it had acquired its first pure-jet, the 65-passenger, t-tailed, Rolls Royce Spey-powered F.28-3000, which, like its turboprop F.27 brother, further elevated its prestige with jet speed and comfort. Registered N163PM, it replaced that type, operating three weekday round trips between JFK and Ottawa and carrying 20 percent more passengers, yet requiring 35 fewer minutes than the turboprop’s otherwise one-hour, 50-minute block time.

Pilgrim’s progressive rise, resulting in its three-type turboprop and pure-jet fleet, transformed it into the largest commuter carrier in the northeast and the 17th-largest out of 179, in the country. But while its fleet, route, and passenger figures climbed, its profits began to descend into debt, and most of its destinations would soon be served by an airline with a new name.

Business Express Saab 340
Business Express Saab 340

Business Express Airlines 

Pilgrim’s lifeline was cast by Business Express Airlines, which assumed its debt, retained its workforce, restored its discontinued service, and, at least initially, operated its aircraft.

Founded as the Marketing Corporation of America (MCA) in 1971 by James McManus, it took wing as a flight department, which offered its executives service to cities within a 250-mile radius of its Fairfield, Connecticut headquarters. But the following decade it expanded into decidedly more public operations when it purchased Atlantic Air, a commuter airline that had carried 24,000, passengers in five twin-engine aircraft in 1984. Adapting the Business Express name, it sought to reflect its business-oriented Northeast route structure.

On February 28, 1986, it acquired 80 percent of Pilgrim Airlines from Joseph Fugere, its largest stockholder, and the remaining 20 percent from former New Air, initially resulting in Business Express-Pilgrim, which collectively operated 32 aircraft, employed 450, transported 375,000 annual passengers, and earned $35 million in revenue. The “Pilgrim” name was subsequently eliminated.

Although all three NewAir, Pilgrim, and Business Express carriers had Connecticut roots and routes, and served many of the same additional destinations in the Northeast, the surviving airline placed its own footprint in the area, expanding to levels that were significantly higher than those of the other two by means of fleet replacements, marketing agreements, and route realignments.

Pilgrim’s old, slower, 19-seat Twin Otters, its F.27 Friendships, and its single F.28 Fellowship were all disposed of. In December of 1989, it acquired Brockway Air and its fleet of 19-seat Beech B1900s and 34-seat Saab 340s, the latter of which became the mainstay of its fleet. Earlier that year, in September, it purchased Mall Airways, giving it access to Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto in Canada. And in 1992 it took delivery of five former Hawaii-based, Discovery Airways British Aerospace BAe-146-200s, a high-wing, t-tailed, 69-passenger airliner powered by four turbofans, thus making it one of the earliest regional jet operators and enabling it to advertise, “Fly BizEx Jets!” As had occurred with Pilgrim, the aircraft gave it larger-carrier prestige, now associated with comfort and speed.

Throughout the next decade, it expanded, particularly through marketing agreements that saw it operate as Northwest Airlink to New England and Eastern Canada; the American Connection; and one of four—along with ASA Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Comair, and SkyWest—Delta Connection carriers. Although it was growth-hampered by airport facility, gate, and ramp limitations in Boston and at JFK and La Guardia, it eventually became the former’s largest carrier, operating some 160 daily departures by the mid-1990s.

Unlike its NewAir and Pilgrim predecessors, Business Express Airlines broke from its traditional northeast route encompassment bonds. Although it served 33 airports in eleven states in that region, it also touched down in five cities in the equal number of midwestern and western states of Colorado (as Northwest Jetlink), Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and in eight airports in the four Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec.

Its route system, according to its August 1,1999 timetable, encompassed the 15 destinations of Albany, Bangor, Boston, Burlington, Islip, Manchester, Nantucket, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Presque Isle, Providence, Rochester, Syracuse, and White Plains in seven states and Halifax, Ottawa, and Quebec City in Canada.

Multiple daily nonstops, with frequencies as high as nine, were offered to Bangor, Manchester, Portland, Providence, Rochester, and Syracuse from La Guardia, and to Boston, with up to ten, from Islip, the first departing at 06:15 and the last at 18:15. Connections could then be made to eleven other US and Canadian cities through that hub.

Business Express RJ70
Business Express RJ70

While Business Express’s five BAe-146-200s, which were subsequently replaced with an equal number of more advanced RJ70s, theoretically seemed to be an advantageous strategy, they proved, in reality, a detrimental one because of the carrier’s inability to operate them on routes that could generate a profit with 69 seats, a relatively high capacity for a regional airline. Its restrictions were many.

 It could not, for instance, operate a four-engine jet into Washington-National. It was prohibited from providing feed to Delta’s Cincinnati and Atlanta hubs because Comair and ASA, respectively, already filled this role. And, while the type could be credited with its Midwest expansion as it searched for markets with sufficient demand, it discontinued its briefly-operated, dual-daily frequencies to Milwaukee in January of 1995 after engaging in a competitive battle with Midwest Express Airlines. That left it with Northeast corridor routes from Boston to Maryland and Virginia, to Cleveland and Detroit form JFK, and to Aspen during the ski season on behalf of Northwest.

Like its two Connecticut carrier predecessors, Business Express weathered a financial decline and was forced to sell its assets to AMR Eagle Holding Corporation, a unit of AMR Corporation and parent of American Airlines, in December of 1998.

American Eagle

Having already operated as the American Connection, but rebranded American Eagle, Business Express infused the affiliate with coveted Boston, New York-La Guardia, and Washington-National slots and its 43-strong fleet of Saab 340As and -340Bs. December 1, 2000 marked its last day of autonomous operation.

Unveiled as far back as late-1984, the American Eagle concept resulted from American Airlines’ inability to economically serve secondary and tertiary markets with its mainline jets. It grew rapidly, feeding its hubs and progressing from turboprop to pure-jet equipment. The first officially designated American Eagle flight, from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Dallas, took place on November 1 when one of its Metroflight’s 14 Convair 580s, powered by two 3,750-shp Allison 501-D13H turboprops, touched down at American’s southwest hub. The aircraft, converted from piston propelled CV-240s, -340s, and -440s, were eventually replaced with Saab 340s.

Second to join the fold, also that year, was Poughkeepsie, New York, based Command Airways, which operated Beech 99s, DHC-6 Twin Otters, Shorts 330s, Shorts 360s, and ATR-42s.

American Eagle Saab 340
American Eagle Saab 340

Simmons, the third, deployed Japanese NAMC YS-11s, Shorts 360s, ATR-42s, and ATR-72s from Chicago-O’Hare, and Wings West, the fourth, dispatched C99s, Fairchild Swearingen Metros, Jetstream 31s, and Saab 340s to West Coast destinations. Lastly, Puerto Rico based Executive Airlines was so branded on September 15, 1986, operating CASA C-212-200 Aviocars, Shorts 360s, and ATR-72s.

Although American Eagle continued to operate Business Express’s multiple-daily Saab 340 flights from Islip to Boston, albeit in its own red, white, and blue livery, they were progressively decreased in frequency until they were altogether discontinued, leaving only two daily roundtrips to Philadelphia. Nevertheless, it retained its extensive Northeast network from the three New York airports, initially with the 34-passenger turboprops, but later with Canadair and Embraer regional jets, whose capacities ranged from 35 to 50 in their various versions.

 But more importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the foundation of its Northeast commuter network was laid by the three Connecticut carriers whose history it continues to build upon—NewAir, Pilgrim Airlines, and Business Express.

Robert G. Waldvogel has spent thirty years working at JFK International and LaGuardia airports with the likes of Capitol Air, Midway Airlines, Triangle Aviation Services, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Austrian Airlines, and Lufthansa in Ground Operations and Management. He has created and taught aviation programs on both the airline and university level, and is an aviation author.

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