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A Short and Somewhat Confusing History of American Eagle, er, Envoy

American Eagle Airlines has announced that it’s changing its name to Envoy, but it will keep flying under the American Eagle brand. Confused yet? You aren’t alone. American Eagle has become something that people don’t quite understand entirely, so let me see if I can explain. It all goes back a few years…

American Eagle Airlines Envoy

Many years ago in a galaxy far, far away, airlines decided to start abandoning smaller routes if the government would let them. Local service carriers popped up (Allegheny, Mohawk, and Frontier, to name a few) to serve smaller markets, and people were able to connect between the smaller and larger airlines. After deregulation, the big carriers realized that there was more value in keeping people on their own airline but they weren’t about to start flying those routes themselves. The regional carrier relationship was born.

The big guys realized they could effectively outsource small market flying to regional operators. That operator would fly under the mainline airline’s code but nearly always with a slightly modified name. That’s how we ended up with names like United Express, Delta Connection, Northwest Airlink, and yes, American Eagle.

When American Eagle started operating in the 1980s, flights were run by several different carriers you’ve probably never heard of. Airlines like Simmons and Wings West flew their airplanes under the American Eagle brand. They were independent airlines but you could book them under the AA code.

In the late 1980s, American had a new strategy. It decided that it still liked having separate airlines running regional services but it wanted to own those airlines directly. Slowly but surely, the airlines were consolidated. Then in 1998, Simmons was merged with Wings West and Flagship to form a single airline, American Eagle Airlines. With the exception of San Juan-based turboprops which were operated by another wholly-owned subsidiary, Executive, all American Eagle-branded flights were flown by American Eagle Airlines.

After American acquired TWA, it found itself with the former Trans World Express carrier contracts. It wanted to continue to use them, but (I believe due to union labor agreements) it couldn’t use the American Eagle name. So those airlines began operating as AmericanConnection. American stuck with both those brands throughout the 2000s. Then it went into bankruptcy.

In bankruptcy, American decided to do some house-cleaning. It chose to begin operating its regionals more like United and Delta. The AmericanConnection brand was ditched, and all regional flying was to be done under the American Eagle name. It even brought in new airlines (like SkyWest in LA) to do regional flying under the brand. When the turboprops went away, little Executive was shut down, but American Eagle continued to fly even though other airlines used the brand as well. That had to change, so American Eagle Airlines became Envoy.

Everyone following so far? I don’t think the Envoy name is a bad one. As I wrote in Conde Nast, the name matters most to the employees since travelers barely see it. And the message to employees is that the airline is a messenger for the American brand. The only confusing bit is that Envoy is also the current name for US Airways business class product. But that’s going away, and we know that US Airways has a long tradition of keeping traditional names in the family. (Its wholly-owned regionals are named PSA and Piedmont.)

So now we have Envoy flying as American Eagle, but how much flying will it actually do? All of the contracts for new flying out of the bankruptcy went to competitors. American Eagle’s costs were just too high. Before bankruptcy, American had delusions of spinning the airline off to a third party, but after the merger, the new management team liked the idea of keeping it in-house. It would complement PSA and Piedmont but first, costs had to come down.

Just recently, the pilot union leadership agreed to a new contract that would make Envoy, more competitive. That cleared the way for 60 new Embraer 175s to be flown by Envoy with the chance for more. But the total fleet will shrink.

Envoy, or what will become Envoy shortly, today flies just over 220 airplanes, mostly 50-seat regional jets. American has committed to Envoy continuing to fly at least 170 airplanes for the next 10 years if the pilots ratify the new agreement. That’s a pretty strong commitment, but it does mean less American Eagle flying for the airline that used to literally be American Eagle.

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