Airlines can sometimes be considered completed puzzles and identifying the pieces that were used to assemble their picture can shed light on their origin. One of them was Republic Airlines.
The Initial Pieces
Republic’s origins, like so many others’, can be traced to a once-new breed of operators designated local service airlines.
After so-called “trunk” carriers, such as American and United, developed into significantly-sized ones by establishing service at major U.S. cities, a void in smaller communities, with low populations and poor surface roads, was left. Since it was unrealistic to have expected the major companies to have operated into airports with large-capacity aircraft more suitable for major-city service, such as to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there was need for a secondary level of air service conducted by smaller, size-appropriate airplanes.
“A new stratum of airline was needed to continue the development of service to the smaller communities which sought their place on the airplane map—a second level of carrier which could specialize in the shorter, sparse traffic routes between minor cities and which could provide feeder or branch lines to the main trunk routes,” according to R. E. G. Davies in Airlines of the United States since 1914 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998, p. 389).
As a result, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) established a “feeder airline” classification on July 11, 1944. Three of these airlines—namely, North Central, Southern, and Hughes Air West—became the three main pieces that formed the Republic puzzle.
Its first, North Central, traced its roots to Wisconsin Central Airlines, which began service on February 24, 1948.
Its second one was located south, as reflected by its very name, Southern Airways. The former local service carrier flew on the wings of a dream. Is founder, Frank W. Halse, dreamt of flying and eventually turned it into a reality by working odd airport jobs and using his earnings to pay for personal pilot training. During the early years of World War II, he established flying schools where some 25,000 Allied pilots were trained, and after it, began his own airline, inaugurating service between Atlanta and Memphis on June 10, 1949 with a single DC-3.
All of this would constitute Republic’s second major puzzle piece. Hughes Air West would become its third, but only after the first two had been assembled.
The Completed Republic Puzzle
The first two pieces seamlessly fit together—well, like a puzzle—and offered numerous advantages. With nary a single duplicated destination between the North Central and Southern route systems, the new one counterbalanced the former independent two by providing a seasonal advantage, enabling it to serve sun-seeking Florida and Caribbean passengers during the winter. Their almost-exclusive DC-9 fleet was compatible.
The integrated Republic Airlines operation, which was the first merger approved after passage of the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA), was officially consummated on October 1, 1979, eliminating the previous “NC” and “SO” two-letter codes and replacing them with the new “RC” one. The 118-strong fleet encompassed 72 DC-9s from North Central and 44 from Southern, although the former’s 24 CV-580s were retained.
A brochure entitled “You’re Building a New Kind of Airline” and distributed to the combined staff, advised, “You started building Republic Airlines over 30 years ago” and “You’re building Republic Airlines—the best of North Central and Southern combined.”
Although it was technically a new carrier whose sum was greater than its parts, its turquoise aircraft livery and restyled mallard duck logo suggested that North Central had been the greater survivor of the two.
During the first year of operations, it posted a $13 million profit and introduced a second type to its McDonnell-Douglas fleet, the Boeing 727-200. Yet, while the Republic puzzle seemed geographically counter-balanced, it was not yet complete. What was needed was a piece in the west–and Hughes Air West, whose yellow paint scheme earned it the reputation of “the flying banana,” seemed able to fit into the remaining gap.
Itself a picture pieced together over the years, it traced one of its roots to Southwest (not to be confused with the current Southwest Airlines), which inaugurated service on a San Francisco-Los Angeles-San Francisco-Medford route line with the DC-3 stablemate on December 2, 1946.
Although it gave Republic a coveted California presence and a 40-strong route system that covered the Midwest, the West, Canada, and Mexico with a mostly-compatible DC-9 fleet, it was also saddled with significant debt.
On October 1, 1980, its piece was placed into the Republic puzzle. Aside from acquiring its 727s, it also incorporated cities in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Utah into its route system. But the resulting tri-carrier merger’s coverage was undisputedly extensive, as emphasized by its advertising, which trumpeted, “Nobody serves our Republic like Republic. From sea to shining sea, Republic Airlines flies you to more cities than any other airline. We serve more than 170 cities. Coast to coast. Canada to Mexico. That’s almost twice as many cities as the next-largest airline.”
To emphasize its local service carrier roots, it also advised, “Wherever in this big republic you want to go, come aboard Republic—the airline with a small-town smile and a big city style.”
Its fleet, which facilitated more than 1,400 daily departures, was equally extensive, consisting of 24 Convair 580s; 133 McDonnell-Douglas DC-9-14s, DC-9-15s, DC-9-31s, DC-9-32s, and DC-9-51s; and 22 Boeing 727-200s. It subsequently also acquired MD-82s and 757-200s.
The airline’s September 8, 1981 system timetable, which emphasized “joining more of America than any other airline,” illustrated the former North Central, Southern, and Hughes Air West route concentrations, with threads connecting Minneapolis and Houston with Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle.
From New York-LaGuardia, it offered four daily nonstops to Atlanta (a former Southern route) and four each to Detroit and Milwaukee (former North Central routes), facilitating connections to more than 70 other destinations.
The triple-carrier combination elevated Republic to U.S. Major Airline status, but it battled rising fuel costs, a recession, low-fare deregulation-created carrier competition, the lowering of the established airlines’ fares to retain market share, the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike, and high, Hughes Air West-adopted interest payments. During the first nine months of 1981, it lost $38.5 million, which increased to $46.3 million for the full-year period. Although the traditional wage, staff, and destination reductions were implemented to stem losses, they proved to be only stopgap measures.
Rescue came in the form of Stephen Wolf, who was appointed the carrier’s new president and CEO after he gained initial experience with American, Pan Am, and Continental. He fought on two fronts—the first between management and employees, who strove to retain their salaries and even jobs, and the second with current industry conditions–all to remain solvent.
Although Republic had become the fifth-largest U.S. carrier by 1984, it had also lost $225 million during the previous four years.
Aside from dismantling its Atlanta hub to avoid competition from Delta and Eastern and its Chicago one to do the same in the face of competition from American and United, he introduced profit-sharing and stock-ownership programs; improved the airline’s business class product, frequent flyer program, and yield management system; eliminated the North Central mallard duck logo legacy; established a three-city Detroit, Memphis, and Minneapolis hub-and-spoke system; and increased feed with regional turboprop operators branded Republic Express.
The 757-200, for which it placed a six-firm and six-optioned order in 1985, became its largest-capacity flagship and served the densest routes to Florida and the West Coast.
A Piece in Its Own Right
So successful had Republic’s turnaround been, that it became the second-most profitable U.S. carrier and an attractive piece of its own to be placed in another airline’s puzzle. That airline was Northwest, which acquired it after a July 31, 1986 merger was approved, and it was officially implemented two months later, on September 30.
It provided Northwest with a domestic route system and a 90-percent market share at its Minneapolis hub. All of Republic’s aircraft, with the exception of the 757s, were retained.
More than two decades later, Northwest itself served as a piece—this time in Delta Air Lines’ puzzle, when Delta acquired it in 2008, creating the most complete picture pieced together over a 65-year period.