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Braniff International Airlines – The “Flying Colors” that Faded Away

Braniff International Airlines may well be the most famous airline nobody’s heard of.

Most of us, young, old, aviation buff or not, has heard of Pan American. The same goes for TWA. The names of Western Airlines, Northwest Airlines, and Eastern Airlines may be familiar to many of us, too. But Braniff? Not so much.

Like so many airlines, Braniff – named after brothers Paul and Thomas Braniff – was a product of the 1920s. Over the next two decades, through merges and buy-outs, the scrappy, Oklahoma-based airline steadily grew with routes extending west to Denver, east to New York, throughout the Midwest and Southwest, and on to Cuba, then Central and South America. By the end of the 1950s, the airline had earned a spot as one of the top ten busiest airlines in the United States and was well-positioned for further growth with the arrival of the jet age.

 Braniff introduced jet service in 1960 and within ten years they were an all-jet carrier. By 1971 Braniff was flying the mammoth wide-bodied Boeing 747 between its Dallas/Ft. Worth hub and Honolulu. Along the way, they’d also placed orders for two Boeing 2707s supersonic transports. No doubt about it, these were promising times for Braniff.

So what happened next?

The answer is complicated, but some history of how airlines operated then and now might help explain Braniff’s rise and fall. Let’s back up a bit.

Created in the 1930s, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) was charged with regulating commercial aviation. Ensuring the safety of passengers was a primary concern but they were also granted the power to determine the routes air carriers could fly and the fares they could charge over those regulated routes.

Unable to compete over fares or routings, airlines found other strategies to attract customers. One was to offer the most sophisticated, fastest, and most comfortable flying equipment the industry had to offer. Another was onboard service. By the 1950s and into the 1960s, airlines were luring new passengers aboard with the promise of sizzling steaks, bubbly Champagne, and inflight movies. Another enticement was to dress their female flight attendants in the most appealing – often provocative – uniforms.

Braniff utilized all three strategies – and added a fourth. In a marketing campaign of the 1960s they hailed “The end of the plain plane.” Out went the staid liveries of past decades – the predictable wings, stripes, stars, and globes. In came COLORS! Turquoise, periwinkle blue, ochre, lemon yellow, orange – fifteen hues in all. And these colors weren’t just paint on planes, they colored Braniff’s boarding lounges, ticket counters, ticket offices, and ticket jackets. And of course, flight attendant uniforms, too.

Emilio Pucci got in on the act, designing uniforms that brought the jet age into the space age with clear plastic “Space Helmets” and colorful plastic boots. So did artist Alexander Calder who designed a particularly vivid paint scheme that found its way onto one of Braniff’s jets, epitomizing the carrier’s “Flying Colors” tagline. Braniff Pucci-designed uniforms

In the mid-1970s, with couturier’s Halston touch, an “elegance campaign” was launched. Things took on a more subdued look. Planes remained colorful sporting hues of Light Corvette Blue, Mercury Blue, Orange, Chocolate Brown, Terra Cotta, Metallic Blue, Burgundy, Sparkling Burgundy Metallic, and Perseus Green (the author’s favorite), along with color-coded speed stripes. But flight attendant uniforms took on brown and beige tones. The Halston-designed uniforms were praised by fashion critics as well as the traveling public. (They were not, however, the author’s favorite given their 100% polyester content and the tropical Hawaii humidity in which they were worn.)

Then it all changed.

By the mid-1970s a national fuel crises as well as “stagflation” (a stagnant economy coupled with rapid inflation) began to take its toll on airline profits. But of special impact would be the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 which would effectively end the CAB. Airlines could now fly where they wanted to fly and charge what the market would bear. The results, pro or con, will be bantered about for decades but in essence, four things played out as the 1980s progressed:

  1. New, start-up airlines would appear almost overnight, filling specific route or service niches. Think The Hawaii Express, MGM Grand, Muse Air, New York Air, People Express, Pride Air and countless others.
  2. The big fish, the “legacy” carriers, shed their unprofitable routes, grew their lucrative routes and established new ones. Think American, Delta, TWA, and United.
  3. Over time, some small or medium-size fish would be swallowed up by bigger fish through buyouts or mergers. Think National acquired by Pan Am, Ozark by TWA, Piedmont by USAir, and Western by Delta.
  4. Some small or medium-size fish would choose to follow the “get big or get swallowed” mantra, expanding their routes – in some cases – exponentially. Think Braniff, Continental, PSA, and Southwest.

 

So there sat Braniff, sitting at the table gobbling up new routes rather than pulling the plug or being swallowed up by arch-rivals American or Delta.

Their strategy worked for about one, maybe two years – roughly from 1978 – 1980. Expanding existing routes throughout the U.S., Canada, and South America, Braniff’s colorful fleet of 727s, DC-8s, and 747s were soon pulling up to airport gates all over Europe and Asia. One day alone, December 15, 1978, saw the airline add 16 new destinations and 32 new routes.

But those heady days wouldn’t – couldn’t – last

Soon, the ongoing economic forces of soaring fuel costs, credit card interest rates, and stagflation caught up with the airline industry, and Braniff in particular. The carrier saw their first operating loss in over a decade.

And it just kept getting worse. Adding new routes and bigger planes didn’t help. Nor did the bullseye target placed on Braniff’s back by competing legacy carriers. Braniff moved quickly to contract its routes and equipment expansion plans, but it was too little, too late.

By May of 1982, after 54 years of service, Braniff was no longer. It’s westbound flight 501 to Honolulu was already airborne when the crew received news the airline had ceased operations.

Well, not quite yet.

Rather than divert to Los Angeles, they flew onward to Honolulu. Return flight 502 then loaded its passengers and their bags, departing for Dallas/Ft. Worth that night, courtesy of Braniff employees (Baggage, Ticket Counter, Cockpit and Cabin Crew) – all of whom were now working for free.

Braniff has often been singled out as the poster child of airline failures following deregulation. As some saw it, they’d long been putting fashion before finance. But it’s possible that although they weren’t the biggest to go under – Eastern and PanAm were far larger carriers to pull the plug – Braniff’s high-flying flashy colors and cocky advertising slogans – “When you’ve got it, flaunt it” – made them easy game.

Two attempts were made to resurrect the airline. Often unofficially called “Braniff II” (1984-89) and “Braniff III” (1991-1992), those valiant efforts failed. But the airline has left us with some unique and certainly some very colorful pages in aviation history.

Bruce Scottow

Transportation, travel, architecture, and history have figured into Bruce’s employment history with careers at Mackey International
Airlines, Braniff International, World Airways, Princess Cruises, travel booking websites, and the Los Angeles Conservancy. Retired
since 2021, Bruce is currently serving on the Board of Directors at Flight Path Museum LAX where he also volunteers.
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