These Are the Most Surprising Airlines That Existed in the 1980s, Including One Owned by Donald Trump

Air travel has changed dramatically over the decades, and most people know that taking a flight today looks nothing like flying during the 1950s or 1960s. But experts say that the true golden age of air travel happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Not-so-coincidentally, the 1980s was the decade when many entrepreneurs — including our current president, Donald Trump — operated some surprising airlines, thanks to Jimmy Carter signing airline deregulation into law in 1978.

Read on to check out the most surprising and memorable airlines that existed in the 1980s. And don’t miss Donald Trump’s airline at number 15.

1. Air Atlanta

Air Atlanta Boeing 727-22

Air Atlanta Boeing 727-22 in Miami in 1987 | Perry Hoppe/ Wikimedia Commons

  • Established: 1984
  • Ceased operations: 1987

Michael R. Hollis founded Air Atlanta in 1984. It became the first luxury airline controlled by an African-American chairman, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Hollis had no experience in the airline industry. And he had no capital of his own. But he still got Air Atlanta off the ground. Yet The New York Times reported in 1987, “Even though Air Atlanta had been bankrolled to $83 million by some of America’s largest corporations, with only seven airplanes the three-year-old airline was unable to achieve any economies of scale and sustained continuous losses.”

Next: This airline chose an unlikely location as its home base. 

2. Air Niagara

Pilots Sitting in the Cockpit

Pilots Sitting in the Cockpit | Digital Vision/iStock/Getty Images

  • Established: 1978
  • Ceased operations: 1984

Air Niagara chose the New York side of Niagara Falls as its home base, offering flights from the Niagara Falls International Airport to Newark. In fact, it was the only airline to operate jet flights to that airport from 1980 to 1984, presumably hoping to become profitable thanks to tourism to Niagara Falls and the surrounding area on the border between New York and Ontario. However, it didn’t last long. reports that this short-lived airline operated with two 727s that formerly belonged to Eastern Airlines, but ceased operations in 1984.

Next: This airline succeeded for decades, until the 1980s hit. 

3. Braniff International Airways

American artist Alexander Calder once painted a Braniff International jetliner

Alexander Calder once painted a jetliner for Braniff International Airways. | AFP/AFP/Getty Images

  • Established: 1930
  • Ceased operations: 1982

Braniff International Airways goes down in history as one of the many airlines that closed its doors for good in the 1980s. But it had actually come into being decades before, in 1930. Tom and Paul Braniff founded the airline in Oklahoma to transport mail and passengers from Dallas to Chicago, according to Airline Geeks. It steadily added more routes in subsequent decades. It became more recognizable in the 1950s, when the airline rebranded and enlisted Emilio Pucci to create colorful new employee uniforms. But by 1980, the airline was losing money — and public interest — thanks to a fuel crisis and competitive pricing. By 1982, the airline had flown its last flight.

Next: This airline could never figure out how to become profitable. 

4. Challenge International Airlines

passengers board plane

Passengers board a plane | fizkes/iStock/Getty Images

  • Established: 1978
  • Ceased operations: 1987

Condé Nast Traveler reports that Challenge International Airlines came about when a group of airline executives chose to create a passenger sibling to their all-cargo airline. They used a fleet of 727s and 737s to connect East Coast cities to the Caribbean and Central America, with its main hub in Miami. But as Traveler notes, the airline “never hit on a formula for success.” Perhaps worse? “Its moniker became a punch line when it ran out of money in late 1987 and declared bankruptcy.”

Next: This ill-fated airline had a notorious crash. 

5. Galaxy Airlines

Woman at the airport

Woman at the airport |

  • Established: 1983
  • Ceased operations: 1986

Galaxy Airlines remains notorious for a deadly 1985 crash. As the Reno Gazette-Journal reports, Galaxy Airlines flight 203 crashed into a Reno field in January 1985. Of the 71 passengers and crew onboard, just one survived. The NTSB said that the pilot and co-pilot caused the crash by reacting incorrectly to severe vibration, traced to a small access door left open by ground handlers. Shortly after takeoff, the plane went down, caromed into a berm, and broke in half.  The airline shut down in 1986 after investigators found its maintenance operations and record-keeping deficient.

Next: This airline came down on the wrong side of the smoking issue. 

6. The Great American Smokers’ Club

Man sitting at the table in outdoor pub Drinking beer and smoking

Smoking a cigarette |

  • Established: 1988
  • Ceased operations: 1988

The Great American Smokers’ Club got off the ground as a spinoff of Royale West Airlines, according to Condé Nast Traveler. At the time, the rest of the airline industry was moving to curtail or ban smoking. But Royal wanted to operate “all-smoking flights” for the Dallas-based “Great American Smokers’ Club.” The club wanted to fight for “cigarette smokers’ right to smoke” and to protest airlines’ “second-class treatment” of smokers. But the plan went up in smoke when in-flight smoking bans began to take effect in 1988 and regulators refused to grant it a license.

Next: This carrier tried to compete with established airlines on a route to Hawaii.

7. Hawaii Express

Hawaii Express jet

Hawaii Express plane in 1982 | Ted Quackenbush/ Wikimedia Commons

  • Established: 1982
  • Ceased operations: 1983

Michael Hartley may have been a few years ahead of his time when he founded Hawaii Express, which he called “The Big Pineapple.” The airline crammed 501 seats — as opposed to the standard multi-class layout of 400 — onto a 747. And it offered flights from Los Angeles to Honolulu for $89.95. But as Condé Nast Traveler notes, “Established airlines on the route were quick to teach the interloper a lesson, slashing their own fares to Hawaii Express’s prices (only to raise them when the airline, predictably, lost customers and shut down).”

Next: This airline chose Scotland as its home base. 

8. Highland Express

Highland Express plane

Highland Express Airways Boeing 747-100 | Gary Watt/ Wikimedia Commons

  • Established: 1984
  • Ceased operations: 1987

Condé Nast Traveler characterizes Highland Express as the brainchild of lawyer Randolph Fields, who was also a founder of Virgin Atlantic. Highland Express became the first budget transatlantic airline to make Scotland its home base. In fact, the airline offered $25 flights between Newark and Scotland. The initial response looked encouraging. But Fields then added a route out of London’s Gatwick, and soon ran out of money. It ceased operations in 1987.

Next: This airline went out of business. Then, its owner tried to sue his competitors. 

9. Laker Airways

Freddie Laker in front of 'Eastern Belle', a Laker Airways Douglas DC 10 airliner

Freddie Laker in front of ‘Eastern Belle’ | Dennis Oulds/Getty Images

  • Established: 1977
  • Ceased operations: 1982

Laker Airways was founded by Sir Freddie Laker, an airline entrepreneur who was among the first to adopt the “no-frills” model that seems like a distinctly modern phenomenon and has become popular around the world. Laker founded his airline in 1977, and found success as a pioneer of the cheap airline model. Trouble came in the early 1980s, when he tried to diversify with a “Regency Class” premium cabin. The move proved incredibly costly to the airline, and it collapsed in 1982. In the following years, Laker filed lawsuits against numerous national airlines, alleging a conspiracy.

Next: This airline planned to fly travelers on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. 

10. The Lord’s Airline

airplane in the clouds

Airplane | Dr.Fly/iStock/Getty Images

  • Established: 1985
  • Ceased operations: 1987

Condé Nast Traveler reports that the original 1985 proposal for The Lord’s Airline involved creating a “warm spiritual atmosphere” for born-again believers. The airline planned to fly between Miami and Tel Aviv, serving travelers who wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And the backers even wanted to donate a significant share of the profits to “the Lord’s ministries.” Unfortunately, as Traveler notes, their dream (and their plane) “was grounded permanently when the money ran out.”

Next: A casino billionaire founded this airline. 

11. MGM Grand Air

View from airplance window

Airplane window | esinesra/iStock/Getty Images

  • Established: 1987
  • Ceased operations: 1995

Condé Nast Traveler reports that MGM Grand Air was a gamble by billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who made his fortune developing Las Vegas casinos. MGM Grand Air was an all-first-class airline with leather swivel chairs, queen-sized beds, tuxedo-clad flight attendants, and even a stand-up bar. The airline attracted celebrities and charged $2,000 for round-trip fares between Los Angeles and JFK. But it still didn’t turn a profit and shuttered in the 1990s.

Next: This airline built a cult following.

12. People Express

People Express Boeing 747

Boeing 747 belonging to People Express | Eduard Marmet/ Wikimedia Commons

  • Established: 1981
  • Ceased operations: 1987

Condé Nast Traveler reports that before we had Virgin or JetBlue, “There was the cult of People Express.” The airline became a media darling in the early 1980s thanks to its charismatic founder, Don Burr. The airline’s employees rotated among jobs, with pilots also loading bags, financial analysts moonlighting as flight attendants, and the crew accepting payment for tickets onboard the plane. Fares began at $23, which also helped make People Express an instant hit. But when Burr became too ambitious — adding first class and flights to Europe — the airline stopped turning a profit. 

13. Presidential Airways

Main Terminal of Washington Dulles International Airport at dusk in Virginia, USA.

Dulles | joeravi/iStock/Getty Images

  • Established: 1985
  • Ceased operations: 1989

Condé Nast Traveler reports that former People Express executives founded Presidential Airways, hoping to create a full-service airline with discount fares. The airline moved into a new terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport. It also built a lounge called the Oval Office and offered domestic flights. Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis chartered one of the planes during his 1988 campaign, but both his political career and the airline ended shortly after that.

Next: This airline didn’t even last a year. 

14. Pride Air

Airplane seats | Tisha85/iStock/Getty Images

  • Established: 1985
  • Ceased operations: 1985

Condé Nast Traveler reports that Pride Air, a New Orleans-based airline, “grew out of one of the most dramatic upheavals that followed deregulation.” Industry disruptor Frank Lorenzo launched a takeover of Continental Airlines. That ended in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and thousands of workers lost their jobs. A group of those workers formed an airline to offer better service and management. But they had to shut down after just three months in business, after learning how difficult it was to compete against established airlines.

Next: Here’s the inside story on the airline owned by Donald Trump. 

15. Trump Shuttle

Trump Shuttle plane on runway

Trump Shuttle | JetPix/Wikimedia Commons

  • Established: 1989
  • Ceased operations: 1992

Condé Nast Traveler reports that in the 1980s, Donald Trump “was on a roll.” So when the chance came to own an airline, Trump went for it. But according to Traveler, the real estate heir ended up with “a geriatric fleet of 727s operated by the Eastern Shuttle from New York City to Washington, D.C., and Boston, which parent Eastern Airlines had put on the block.” The publication adds, “Trump slapped his name on the planes and spent millions glitzing up the interiors with chrome and faux marble touches, but it never turned a profit, and the now-president was forced to divest the airline in 1990.”

Read more: This Is the Most Expensive Mistake You Can Make at the Airport

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