It’s time for my favorite post of the year. Think of it like an awards show where they show you that long reel of people who have died since the last one. But in this case, we’re talking about airlines. Hold the applause – there’s nothing more awkward than hearing deafening silence for the one sound editor who nobody knows (Mint Airways?) while Mr Big Star (Comair? MALEV?) gets a rousing applause.
In the airline world, it doesn’t matter anyway. They’re all toast. So let’s just honor them all, some for their achievements and others for their sheer stupidity. It’s time to celebrate those airlines we lost in 2012. (You can see previous honorees here.)
Mesaba – January 4, 2012
The death of Mesaba was a strange one, to say the least. Once the Northwest Airlink beacon of bright red throughout snow-covered upper Midwest towns, Mesaba was bought by Northwest and operated as a subsidiary. Once Delta took over, it sold Mesaba off to Pinnacle and then the end was near. As Pinnacle continued to reshuffle its operations, it made the decision to transfer all the remaining Mesaba jets to Pinnacle and then Mesaba would briefly disappear. Ultimately, the Colgan name was to be ditched with all props resurfacing under Mesaba. But Pinnacle went bankrupt and shuttered its prop operation completely. The revival of Mesaba wasn’t to be.
Cirrus Airlines – January 20, 2012
The death of Cirrus was just a matter of circumstance. The airline, except for its small charter operation, was operating almost entirely for Lufthansa as a regional carrier doing short haul flying. Lufthansa has been having its fair share of problems within Europe, so it decided to make some changes. When Lufthansa decided that it was going to end its regional partnerships, poof, that took away most of the reason for Cirrus to live. It had little to no choice but to shut its doors and disappear quietly into thin air.
Spanair – January 28, 2012
The once almost-but-not-really mighty Spanair finally succumbed this year. It was the number two airline in Spain and it was considered by some to be the flag-bearer of Catalonia with its base in Barcelona. For years, Spanair was owned primarily by SAS, and it was even a member of Star Alliance. When I was in college, I remember seeing Spanair’s 767s arrive at Dulles airport. But those are all distant memories. The last decade was a mess. Spain’s economy collapsed, SAS stumbled along, and Spanair needed a bailout. Its last hope was with Qatar Airways, but that fell through. And so Spanair met its demise.
MALEV – February 3, 2012
Poor Malev. Of all the airlines that failed this year, it’s little MALEV that tugs on the heartstrings most. Born when Hungary took back control of its own airline from the Soviets post-World War II, MALEV found itself trying to find its place. In recent years, MALEV joined oneworld and tried to find a niche, but it found itself in a place similar to many others in smaller European countries. Those places don’t need a ton of service but they have held on to their flag carriers even though low cost carriers have eaten them alive. In Hungary, MALEV’s time was about to run out. When the European Union said MALEV wasn’t allowed state subsidies, the end was near. Its liquidation was ordered on Valentine’s Day.
Air Zimbabwe – February 6, 2012
The fact that Air Zimbabwe survived all the way until 2012 is a miracle in its own right. Zimbabwe has suffered through massive inflation under an autocratic dictator for years. People couldn’t afford to eat, yet the airline somehow soldiered on. From an airline dork perspective, the biggest thing that will be missed is the retro-awesome livery that graced its airplane (yep, it only had one airplane in the end, though there were rumors of a second floating around). With airlines like Emirates and KLM now serving Harare, it’s unlikely people will miss Air Zimbabwe. They couldn’t afford to fly it anyway.
Air Australia – February 17, 2012
There was a slight chance that Air Australia was going to be something great. Very slight. Instead, it flamed out incredibly quickly. Strategic decided to rename itself Air Australia later in 2011 to get more of a patriotic thing going for it. It was going to be a new competitor in Australia with flights all over, even to the US (Honolulu). But it lasted for just a few short months before it realized that success was not meant to be. I imagine if anyone was surprised, it was simply at how quickly its demise happened.
Continental Airlines – March 2, 2012
When it comes to mergers, I officially declare an airline gone as soon as you can no longer book a flight on the airline. That day came for Continental on March 2 when the CO code disappeared and the United name took over. Now let’s be honest – Continental has hardly disappeared. I mean the airplane looks exactly the same just with a different name. And most of the surviving folks at the top are ex-Continental. But it is the death of an historic name, and we should honor that. I like to think of Continental as the Proud Bird with the Golden Tail, based in LA. But that was a long, long time ago.
Direct Air – March 13, 2012
Direct Air wasn’t much of an airline. In fact, it had no airplanes at all. But Direct Air, which started life as Myrtle Beach Direct Air, chartered airplanes from several operators to get people from small cities to obscure tourist destinations. The airline limped along for quite some time, but then it shut down very quickly, leaving many people stranded. Many small cities mourned the loss of the service, and others have tried to find replacements. But none are likely to replicate what Direct Air did (and for good reason).
REDjet – March 15, 2012
Of all the failed airlines this year, I actually thought REDjet held the most promise. The idea was simple and had been done many times before elsewhere – bring low fares and reliable service to the Caribbean. For those who have flown within the Caribbean, you know it’s not cheap with rare exceptions. The original plan was to base in Jamaica, but that fell through so the airline had to move itself over to the Barbados. It’s kind of like starting Skybus in Columbus. Good idea, bad execution. Maybe one day the plan will work to bring lower fares to the Caribbean, but that day was not in 2012.
AeroSur – March 31, 2012
Bolivia’s largest airline also became Bolivia’s deadest airline when it shut down early in 2012. It was actually the country’s flag carrier for some time even though it was a private airline. That standing started to erode when the country effectively decided to kill it. That might not be completely fair, but Bolivia did start up Boliviana de Aviación in 2007 (to replace Lloyd Aereo Boliviano), and that did not exactly help AeroSur’s cause. The airline tried a lot of different things, even operating a 747 to Europe, but in the end, it didn’t have what it took to make money, especially competing with a government-owned carrier.
Cimber Sterling – May 3, 2012
Skyways – May 22, 2012
The hodge-podge that was Cimber Sterling finally met its maker this year. Cimber had been around for ages, but it purchased the ashes of Sterling (which itself was a mash-up of Sterling European and Maersk), and tried to make the thing fly. It didn’t work for long. At the end, it was owned by the same company that owned regional airline Skyways along with City Airline. With competition increasing (good day, Norwegian), none of these guys stood a chance. They were all shut down.
PLUNA – July 6, 2012
The oldest airline to shut down this year was little PLUNA, the national airline of Uruguay. And with it, goes another tie to legendary VARIG of Brazil. Uruguay is not a big country with Montevideo, its main point of entry, a mere 140 miles east of Buenos Aires. But for years, Uruguay supported its flag carrier. In the mid-1990s, it was privatized with VARIG taking half the company. Its ownership bounced around over the years as VARIG went under, and ultimately it went back to the state. When the state couldn’t find any buyers, it shut the money-bleeding airline down. Some blame Argentina for its protectionist policies supporting its national airline, but in the end, PLUNA just had too much debt and things weren’t going to get any better.
WindJet – August 12, 2012
When Alitalia decides you’re too much of a mess, that doesn’t bode well for the success of your airline. And that’s exactly what happened to WindJet, an Italian airline that lasted a lot longer than most probably would have guessed. Early in 2012, with Sicilian-based WindJet failing, Alitalia decided to take over both that airline and Blue Panorama. The Blue Panorama deal fell apart, but WindJet was still good to go… until the government stepped in. The government decided that Alitalia would have to give up some slots to new operators for the deal to go through. With that caveat, Alitalia decided the deal wasn’t worth it and WindJet shut down. The government tried to get Alitalia to step back in after that but to no avail, and WindJet was gone … with the wind.
Colgan Air – September 5, 2012
When most Americans hear the name Colgan Air, they shudder. That’s because Colgan was the owner of the Q400 that plowed into a neighborhood in Buffalo on a dark and stormy night in 2009. But there was a lot more to Colgan than that. The airline was originally based near Washington, DC and spent its years bouncing around with Beech 1900s and Saab 340s to feed Continental and then US Airways and United Express. In 2007, it was bought by Pinnacle and became the Q400 operator for Continental. After a series of mergers, Colgan’s name was to be phased out. When Pinnacle filed for bankruptcy, the decision was made to get rid of all prop flying entirely. This September, the airline was shut down for good.
bmibaby – September 9, 2012
Take one airline in a financially precarious place (bmi) and try to come up with a plan to profit. What do you get? You get yet another airline within and airline. *sigh* Amazingly, bmibaby lasted for a long decade. It flew a fleet of older generation 737s from secondary British cities primarily to sun destinations. Ah yes, the time-tested tradition of trying to put a tan on those pale white faces. But bmibaby was never going to beat the charters and true low cost carriers at their games. It somehow survived for a full decade until bmi was sold. Its new parent had new interest in running bmibaby or bmi regional. At least a buyer was found for bmi regional, but nobody wanted to touch bmibaby. Without an operator to be found, the airline was simply shut down.
Air Nigeria – September 10, 2012
Remember Air Nigeria? Probably not. But do you remember Virgin Nigeria? I’m going to guess you do. That airline had a falling out with Sir Richard Branson, so they parted ways (including the ownership stake) and the airline became Nigerian Eagle. Eventually it became Air Nigeria after yet another change. Air Nigeria was a mess. It had financial problems its whole life, and run-ins with the government were regular occurrences. It also suffered through strikes. The airline was simply poorly run, and it finally kicked the bucket after the bungling brass ran out of options.
Comair – September 29, 2012
This was a death that many expected, but there were still plenty of tears shed when it came. Comair was an early Delta Connection carrier and became synonymous with its mighty Cincinnati hub. It was one of the first to demonstrate the marketing power of the regional jet and ordered a ton of them. Comair was a shining star, and Delta ended up buying the airline. Its employees wanted to be paid better, and the subsequent strike that effectively shut down the Cincinnati hub was a wake up call for mainline carriers to diversify their regionals. But that was just the beginning of a long slide for the airline. In the end, two things led to Comair’s downfall. The Cincinnati hub was slashed and fuel prices skyrocketed. Comair kept shrinking until it was really irrelevant. Delta shut it down as part of its regional realignment because there simply wasn’t a need for the once high-flier.
bmi British Midland – October 28, 2012
The death of bmi came with such a whimper that I had completely forgotten that it officially occurred. I believe the final day of the “mighty” BD code was on October 28. After that, all bmi flights were merged into British Airways. I think of bmi as Lufthansa’s folly. When Lufthansa agreed to be forced into buying bmi, it made a mistake. And ever since it bought the airline, it tried everything to sell it. In the end, BA bought it simply for the slots at Heathrow, beating out Virgin Atlantic in the process. Were it not for that Lufthansa deal, bmi probably would have disappeared long ago. But bmi will live on – the regional airline was sold off and is operating independently as bmi regional now.
1Time – November 2, 2012
Of all the failures on this list, 1Time’s is the one with the happiest ending. It was just another South African low cost carrier but without a major carrier tie (Mango with South African and Kulula with BA/Comair are the others) and it went under. But there is now hope for the remains of this airline. FastJet, the airline that easyJet is involved with around Tanzania and elsewhere has entered into an agreement to purchase the remains and start flying in South Africa. Keep an eye on FastJet as it grows and tries to make a serious go at a reliable pan-African low cost carrier. From a lot of ashes this year, at least there is one phoenix.
Here are a few others that failed this year, but I don’t have enough to really say about them. Feel free to eulogize if you miss them.