Many probably remember the once-proud airline that bore the name of its founder, Braniff. There may be fewer, however, who know that a short-lived version preceded it and that two others followed it. Cats, according to the old English proverb, have nine lives. In the case of Braniff, it had four.
“Two brothers, a dreamer and a pragmatist joined forces to create one of the world’s leading airlines,” according to Richard Benjamin Cass in his article, “From Oklahoma Acorn to Texas Oak: The Story of Braniff Airways” in Braniff Boutique. “From humble beginnings that began as an Aero Club in Oklahoma City in 1927, Braniff grew to become a multinational corporation… Those brothers, Paul Reeve Braniff, the dreamer and aviator, and Thomas Elmer Braniff, the pragmatist…had the courage and foresight to become early pioneers in America’s burgeoning aviation industry.”
The First Braniff
What can be considered “the first Braniff,” designated “Paul R. Braniff, Inc.,” was formed in the spring of 1928 and inaugurated service on June 20 with a five-passenger Stinson Detroiter between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, transporting oil company executives. Although it was short-lived and purchased by the Universal Aviation Corporation the following year, it served as the seed that grew into the second Braniff, which enjoyed far greater longevity, size, and success.
The Second Braniff
Established as Braniff Airways on November 3, 1930, the carrier began its second life ten days later when it inaugurated service between Tulsa and Wichita Falls with a six-passenger Lockheed Vega. Instrumental in its early expansion was the May 7, 1934 award of the air mail route that enabled it to connect Dallas, which would later become its hub, with Chicago.
Increasing passenger demand and route expansion were met with ever-larger, more modem Lockheed L-10 Electras and Douglas DC-2s and DC-3s.
Its post-World War II expansion was considerable. Awarded a 7,719-mile route from Dallas to Buenos Aires, Argentina, with intermediate stops in Cuba, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay, it acquired quad-engine DC-4s and DC-6s and changed its name to Braniff International Airways.
US domestic growth was facilitated by its 1952 acquisition of Kansas City-based Mid-Continent Airlines. Operating short-range Convair 240s, 340s, and 440s and long-range DC-7s, it became the ninth-largest US carrier. It entered the jet age with the 707-220.
Harding Lawrence, its new president, transformed its image. His “End of the Plain Planes” strategy resulted in a multi-colored palette of aircraft liveries that included ochre, orange, turquoise, baby blue, and lemon-yellow, and fashion designer Emilio Pucci revamped its flight attendant uniforms into something more stylish.
Long-range DC-8-62s replaced the earlier DC-8-30s and DC-8-50s acquired with Braniff’s 1967 takeover of Pan American Grace Airways (Panagra), and one appeared in a modern, Alexander Calder-designed “Flying Colors of South America” paint scheme.
The all-jet domestic fleet soon consisted of the BAC-111-200, the 727-100, and the 727-200.
In 1991, it took delivery of a 747-100, alternatively dubbed “747 Braniff Palace” and “The Most Exclusive Address in the Sky,” for a new Dallas-Honolulu route. Seemingly dipped in orange paint, it was also nicknamed “The Great Pumpkin,” and became the first of many for the airline’s European and Pacific route expansions.
Braniff was the only US domestic carrier to operate the supersonic Concorde, restricting its speed to subsonic levels on its overland Dallas-Washington/Dulles route during its 18-month interchange between January 1979 and June 1980 with Air France and British Airways, which then crossed the Atlantic supersonically with them.
It operated its own, albeit subsonic, flights to Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Paris, and eventually served 115 worldwide destinations.
But deregulation, as occurred with other legacy carriers, was considered both an opportunity and obstacle. Braniff, believing that it was a temporary window offering the former that would quickly reclose, aggressively expanded, ordering aircraft before other airlines took precious delivery slots from it.
Like falling dominoes that collapsed into bankruptcy, however, it mounting debt, recession-reduced travel demand, escalating fuel prices, an air traffic controllers’ strike, low-fare competition, and American Airlines and Delta inroads into its Dallas hub, forced it to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the first carrier to do so since regulation was implemented in 1938. It ceased operations on May 12, 1982 after a 52-year life.
The Third Braniff: Braniff Came to Life a Third Time
As the mastermind of Jay Pritzker, of Hyatt Hotels, it gained financial wings with $70 million from Hyatt itself and $30 million from the previous Braniff’s assets before it received its aerodynamic ones. Established on Dec. 15, 1983 as Dalfort Corporation, it assumed the half-century familiar “Braniff” name when it became its wholly-owned subsidiary, enabling it to recommence operations from its former Dallas hub on March 1 of the following year.
Its first departure, Flight BN 200 operated by a 727-200 registered N446BN that sported a modernized version of the second Braniff’s 1959 red, white, and blue El Dorado color scheme, was pushed back from the gate at 06:50, destined for New Orleans. As the first of 18 destinations served that day, it marked the beginning of the third Braniff and the implementation of the largest single-day airline start-up in US airline history. It advertised, “We’re building the new Braniff around you;” Braniff is the best low fare in the air;” and “Braniff: Believe it!”
It detailed its structure as encompassing “a fleet of 30 state-of-the-art Boeing 727-200s,” leather seats, light meals, fold-down middle seats, more overhead storage, experienced personnel, more legroom, and frequent flier savings. By June 1, it served 21 coast-to-coast destinations.
As had occurred with the second Braniff’s acquisitions of Mid-Continent and Panagra, it purchased Florida Express Airlines in 1988, increasing its fleet by 18 aircraft and route system by 17 cities. Many of the BAC-111-200s it obtained had been operated during Braniff’s second life, and they became its third aircraft type after the ten 737-200s it had already leased from Polaris Aircraft Leasing Corporation the previous year.
The acquisition gave it a small southeastern hub to counterbalance the Kansas City one in the Midwest that had replaced its original Dallas one to take advantage of opportunities Eastern left after it had vacated it.
By 1988, when BIA-COR Holdings, Inc. became the carrier’s new owner after a stock purchase agreement concluded with Dalfort Corporation, the third Braniff had become the 13th largest US airline in terms of revenue passenger miles (RPMs), serving 40 domestic destinations, as well as Nassau in the Bahamas.
But because of expansion, competition, and debt, deregulation’s dominoes once again fell, forcing a chapter 11 filing and an initial 256 daily departure reduction to 46. Out of cash, it ceased operations altogether on November 6, 1989.
The Fourth Braniff
The final Braniff had the shortest life of all four. BNA, Inc. was formed in 1990 for the purpose of acquiring the third Braniff’s assets at three bankruptcy auctions, along with the operating certificate of Emerald Air, another bankrupt, Austin-based, intra-state DC-9-10 operator.
Service began on July 1, 1991 with a 727-100 between Islip’s Long Island MacArthur Airport and Ft. Lauderdale with a $69.00 introductory fare as it became one of a dozen airlines from Northeastern to Frontier to provide the all-important Long Island-Florida link. But connections from its Dallas hub followed on July 2 to Los Angeles and Newark.
Yet bankruptcy beckoned a mere 38 days after it took to the sky: it lost a charter contract with a Canadian tour company, its Los Angeles service was discontinued because of its inability to obtain ground facilities to support it, and insufficient funding forced a departure from and later return to its Dallas hub.
It ultimately managed to piece together
a 15-city route system, along with service
to San Juan and St. Thomas in the Caribbean.
But only one year and one day after it began, it ended—again in bankruptcy—as the carrier cited competition and fare wars as the reason for its termination. Scot Spencer, one of BNA-Cor’s founders and original head of the carrier’s management team, was found to have received kickbacks during its operation and was later convicted of bankruptcy fraud.
Although Braniff had fewer than half the lives of the proverbial cat, it had exhausted all of them during its collective 61 years in the sky. There never was a fifth Braniff.