Airlines, through their structure, serve different market segments. Some carry all passengers or all cargo. Some operate regional turboprops or widebody jets. Some are low-fare, and others offer varying classes. And some only serve small geographical areas. Mohawk and Empire were examples of the latter: they were created to serve New York State.
Founded on April 6, 1945, as the Airline Division of Robinson Aviation, Mohawk, initially known as Robinson Airlines, began service from Ithaca with three-passenger Fairchild 24s built at Republic Airport on Long Island. A $75,000 loan from Edwin Albert Link, inventor of the famous pilot trainer, enabled it to purchase three 21-passenger DC-3s.
After the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) designated it a local service carrier in 1948, it was able to expand throughout the Mohawk Valley, which stretches between the Catskill and Adirondack mountains, on April 23, 1952. It officially changed its name to Mohawk Airlines to reflect its geographical coverage, adopting a blue and red Indian aircraft logo to emphasize its” Route of the Air Chiefs” coverage.
But faced with the dual dilemma of satisfying increasing demand and competing, as a local service, inferior-image carrier, with the trunk ones, it replaced its DC-3s with pressurized, 40-passenger Convair 240s on July 1, 1955, becoming the first of the local service breed to do so.
After its takeover of E. W. Higgens Airways, it expanded rapidly. In 1953, it served 15 airports and carried two million annual passengers for the first time. Three years later, it outgrew its original Ithaca headquarters and relocated to Utica, and acquired seven more CV-240s from Swissair. And it was pitted directly against American Airlines after it was granted a New York-Syracuse route award in 1957.
Considered a pioneer in its field, it continued to expand, acquiring larger Convair 440s in 1958 and Martin 404s in 1960. It was the first regional carrier to use a computer-based reservation service and the first to use pilot flight simulators. But its greatest achievement was the introduction of jet aircraft in the form of the BAC-111 on such short routes to meet demand, competing with the likes of American, to shed its local service image.
“Under the presidency of Robert Peach, Mohawk Airlines had become firmly established on a number of commuter routes radiating north and northwest from New York,” according to R. E. G. Davies in Airlines of the United States Since 1914 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998). “With a clientele of critical businessmen who dismissed even a relatively young Convair-Liner as a ‘coffee grinder,’ the Mohawk image needed a stimulant.”
Produced by the British Aircraft Corporation in the UK and powered by Rolls Royce Spey engines, the swept-wing, t-tail BAC-111-200 was small enough, with a 69-seat interior, to be profitable on sectors as short as 100 miles. Its gamble paid off. It attracted a greater number of passengers after the type was inaugurated into service on its main commuter routes on July 15, 1965, serving as the model for other, similar carriers to “go jet.”
Two years earlier, it became the first US airline to serve all four JFK, La Guardia, Newark, and White Plains airports in New York.
Throughout its history, it touched down at 44 airports in 13 states and two Canadian provinces. Some 20 were in New York alone. Yet labor and economic issues, draining it of cash between 1968 and 1971, forced its demise and takeover, as the third largest local service carrier, by Allegheny, the largest which the CAB approved on April 7, 1972. Seven years later, on October 30, it changed its name to USAir.
Established to serve the Empire State of New York, Empire Airlines was, in many ways, a later version of Mohawk.
Paul H. Quakenbush, a pilot who once flew for Air America in Southeast Asia, invested $25,000 to create a fixed base operator at Oneida County Airport, consisting of two aircraft and a hangar. He strongly believed in high employee productivity. His mechanics fixed his aircraft and those of others. His pilots flew them but also served as flight instructors at other times.
Scheduled service between Utica and Rome began on September 22, 1975, with 19-passenger Fairchild-Swearingen Metro II turboprops, a manufacturer which again traced its roots to Farmingdale, Long Island. In its first year of operations, it flew just 381 passengers. But a larger base, offering greater opportunity for expansion, prompted a relocation to Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport.
Growth was facilitated by two means: monetary investment and new routes.
In the former case, private stock offerings raised $160,000 in 1976 and $250,000 in 1977, and in 1980, a public one entailed 165,000 shares priced at $5.00 each.
In the latter, routes Allegheny was no longer CAB-required to serve were picked up, as had occurred with Mohawk.
Quakenbush’s vision was to provide frequent flights from a centrally located upstate New York airport to both small cities where insufficient traffic made larger carriers’ aircraft uneconomic and to larger downstate ones for passenger feed. Filling this void, he would be able to maintain air service yet avoid competition with trunk airlines like American and United.
Like Mohawk, Empire also acquired regional jet aircraft for operation on sectors hitherto the domain of turboprops—in this case, the Fokker F.28 Fellowship. Similar, in overall configuration, to the BAC-111, but produced in Holland, the low, swept-wing, t-tailed design was powered by a smaller version of the Rolls Royce Spey engine and uniquely featured a pedal-shaped airbrake for steep, controlled descent profiles.
Fokker advertised this faster-turn-around, step-up turboprop replacement as “The new Fokker F.28. The fuel-efficient jet for growing short-haul operations” and “The only modern fanjet of its size specifically designed to expand your system profitably in the ’80s.”
It inaugurated the F.28-4000 into service in 1980, linking New York-La Guardia with Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, and two years later acquired additional examples from Altair Airlines, which had just ceased operations.
Its dual-type fleet was identified by specific flight numbers. “Flights 1 through 99 are operated with 85-passenger Fokker F.28 jets,” its system timetables advised. “Flights 100 through 999 are operated with 19-passenger Swearingen Metro II jet props.”
It also described its service concept. “At Empire Airlines, we’re putting together all the things travelers consider important but are seldom offered together – low fares, frequent flights, free drinks, and frequent service – almost impossible.”
As had occurred with Mohawk’s BAC-111s, its F.28s elevated its image and attracted passengers, and it emphasized them on the covers of its schedules. “More jet service: Rochester and Syracuse to New York City and Boston” (January 19, 1982) and “New jet service to Detroit and Albany” (April 1, 1984).
Empire rapidly expanded. In 1984, when it carried more than a million annual passengers for the first time and earned $2.25 million on $76.8 million in revenues, it was named Air Transport World’s Regional Airline of the Year. It also became a “Pan Am Express” code-share carrier, facilitating connections between the two and operating from a dedicated Pan Am Worldport gate at JFK that was ironically right across the ramp from the Terminal 2 gate Mohawk had used for its BAC-111s.
“The Empire/Pan Am Express brings you the world,” it advertised. “The Empire/Pan Am Express is operated for Pan Am by Empire Airlines to provide connecting service between Upstate New York and Hartford to all of Pan Am’s worldwide destinations via Kennedy, then Pan Am to your final destination.”
In 1984, it carried more than 80,000 passengers from the Pan Am Worldport under its new “PA” two-letter code listed flights as opposed to its own “UR” one.
Throughout its history, Empire served 24 cities in nine states and two Canadian provinces. It offered three daily roundtrips from Islip’s Long Island MacArthur and White Plains’ Westchester County airports and multiple ones from the three major New York airports to Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Elmira, Hartford, Ithaca, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica/Rome.
Acquired by Piedmont Airlines in 1986, it gave that carrier a New York State route network, a Syracuse hub, and jet aircraft that were compatible with its own smaller, 65-passenger F.28-1000s. Only a year later, Piedmont itself was taken over by USAir.
Similarities of the Pair
The similarities between Mohawk and Empire were many. Both had humble beginnings. Both established New York State route networks, partly by serving cities discontinued by the larger airlines. Both implemented innovative strategies. Both introduced regional jets on sectors not traditionally suitable for them, and both, either initially or ultimately, were absorbed by Allegheny/USAir.