I usually love writing this post, but this time I had a little bit of dread in me. I knew 2020 was going to be rough. And by that, I mean I knew I was going to have to do a lot of writing. Sure enough, I was not wrong. There were so many failures this year that I just buried a bunch in the Tomb of the Unknown Airline at the end. I picked out a couple dozen to highlight.
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Oh Ernest, I had such high hopes for you. I found Ernest so interesting that I even wrote it up, but now it’s toast. Ernest was trying to serve a small niche market, originally from its Milan base to Albania. It then expanded into Ukraine, Romania, and Spain. Really, it seemed like Ernest didn’t quite know exactly what to do, but eventually it didn’t have to think any longer, because the government shut it down. There have been a few plans to bring the airline back from the dead, but so far, that’s not happening. I don’t expect it will.
You might remember this airline as AtlasJet, it’s original name when it was first founded. Either way, the airline almost made it twenty years flying from its Istanbul home to Europe and around the Middle East. What’s most interesting about this airline is that it was largely responsible for the failure of another airline, Ryan International, which some may remember as a charter carrier in the US. It turns out that AtlasGlobal had leased an airplane from Ryan, and then it didn’t pay for it. That helped push Ryan over the edge into liquidation. What goes around comes around.
I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that Air Italy had failed, but even I was taken aback by just how quickly the whole thing fell apart. Air Italy had a long history, first as Alisarda and then Meridiana. From its Sardinian home, the airline did all kinds of strange things, including using very dense 767s to fly to New York. It was unique, that’s for sure, but it didn’t make money. So, Qatar Airways stepped in and pumped it full of cash. It gave it new airplanes, rebranded it, and tried to create a hub in Milan to serve the world. You know how that went. Just about two years after it relaunched, Air Italy was gone and Alitalia resumed its position as the only worst airline in Italy… and the world.
The failure of Flybe will stick with me for a long time. Sure it was just a British regional airline flying a bunch of Q400s and a few Embraers around, but I will always remember it as the first failure that seemed directly related to COVID-19. Oh sure, it was on the ropes before. I actually flew it in 2019 from London to Edinburgh just before it narrowly escaped shutting down when Virgin Atlantic put money into the airline. But the losses continued, and when COVID started up, traffic disappeared, and it just wasn’t worth holding on any longer. There’s still talk about trying to resurrect the airline, but I’ll believe it when I see it. This would require some stupid money to come back.
I never understood why LGW went by that name when its full name — Luftfahrtgesellschaft Walter — just rolled right off the tongue. But seriously, that basically translated to Walter Airlines, which sounds a whole lot simpler. LGW was an independent German airline that in 2007 hitched itself to airberlin. It became the regional operator of Q400s for the airline, and eventually it was bought outright. Then airberlin imploded. It found a new life when Lufthansa purchased the airline and had it fly Q400s under the Eurowings low-cost brand. It even briefly operated Airbus narrowbodies for the group. Lufthansa then sold the airline to the company that owned WDL, and it planned to operate them both under the name German Airways. That didn’t happen. Lufthansa decided it didn’t need 3,580 different airlines flying under the Eurowings brand, so it canceled the agreement. LGW disappeared overnight.
With COVID in full swing by April, the failures came fast and furious. Trans States used to be Resort Air, and it even flew as TW Express back in the day. It went through several different partners over the years, and it grew into a subsidiary of Trans State Holdings, a company that owned two other regionals at its peak. By early this year, it was only flying Embraer 145s for United, and United decided the party was over. It was going to gradually shift the airline’s flying to ExpressJet through 2020, but once COVID hit, the transition accelerated to… pretty much right away. On April 1, Trans States was gone.
I have a soft spot for Compass. Why? Just look at that logo. You can tell where this came from instantly. Compass has a fairly sordid past. It was born as a compromise between Northwest and its pilots. Compass was built by Northwest to fly 76-seaters for lower wages, and to get started faster, it bought the operating certificate from the failed Independence Air. After Delta and Northwest merged, Delta sold Compass off to Trans States Holdings. Compass then not only continued flying for Delta, but it began flying for American Eagle out of Los Angeles as well. The writing was on the wall when Delta ended its agreement with the airline last year. It flew its last flight for American this year, marking the second airline failure for Trans States Holdings in a week. The legacy almost carried on when Breeze said it would acquire the Compass certificate, but that was called off.
Stick with me on this one. Germanwings was started as a low-cost subsidiary of Eurowings, an airline that was only partially owned by Lufthansa. About a decade ago, Lufthansa bought Germanwings and decided to make it the airline’s low-cost brand. Just a couple years later, Lufthansa fully bought Eurowings. Then another couple years later, Lufthansa decided that Eurowings would be its low-cost brand, and it was going to integrate Germanwings back into Eurowings. Germanwings kept flying for awhile under its own code but with Eurowings branding. Then the code disappeared and it was just one of the 3,580 Eurowings operators along with fellow failure LGW. In April, Lufthansa decided to shut it down, though I have no idea when it actually stopped flying.
Let’s make one thing clear. SA Express has nothing to do with South African Airways from a corporate perspective, but they both share in common a particularly terrible financial situation. That’s probably because they are, er, were both owned by the government of South Africa. SA Express was a regional operator that used CRJ-200s, CRJ-700s, and Q400s to buzz around South Africa and neighboring countries. The employees banded together to form Fly SAX to buy the assets of the defunct airline, but best I can tell, it still isn’t flying again. I’ll just assume it’s gone for good, but it may rise from the dead and prove me wrong.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing the Miami Air International name. It was just a charter operator, but it was a rather prolific one. From its early days using 727s, Miami Aid flew the military and government around along with pro sports teams, cruise passengers, and more. It eventually ditched the 727 for the 737-800 as the backbone of its fleet. it could be found pretty much everywhere around the world, including Guantanamo Bay. You might remember that from last year when an airplane returning to Jacksonville from there slid off the runway into a river. Oops. But after a 30 year run, Miami Air was done. The guy who owns World Atlantic bought the name and wants to restart Miami Air. It looks like he has an airplane, but I don’t think a restart has happened, nor do I understand why he’d want it to. Even if it does, it’ll be a different airline, so the original belongs on this list.
TAME had an interesting start as a military-sponsored airline flying mostly domestic routes on DC-3s. The idea was to train military pilots and give them practice. It apparently worked, because it stayed under the military until earlier this decade when it became just a regular state-owned carrier. TAME inherited the position as flag carrier for the country once Ecuatoriana folded back in 2006, but chances are if you know the airline, it’s only because you flew to the Galapagos. Sure, it did fly to the US on occasion, but it never had a large fleet or a big presence. The government gave up and just shut the whole thing down this year. Now Avianca and LATAM share the bulk of the duties connecting Ecuador to the world.
Avianca may be doing a lot of flying in Ecuador, but as for Perú, well, not so much. There was a time when TACA was a wildly-successful airline that dominated Central America. In 1999, Peru’s national carrier Aeroperú shut down, and that created a vacuum. LAN swooped in with LAN Perú, but TACA saw opportunity as well, so it moved in. It maintained a secondary position for years, but then after the merger with Avianca, the whole entity began to suffer. With Avianca in bankruptcy, it took the opportunity to just kill the whole Peruvian operation entirely, and so Avianca Perú met its demise.
Oh, little Makani Kai. I flew this Moloka’i-based airline back in 2017 from Kalaupapa up to Ho’olehua. It was the shortest flight I’ve ever been on at 6 minutes to go the nine miles. That flight may sound silly, but it’s critically important for connecting those with Hansen’s Disease to topside Moloka’i since the only other option is a trail (that’s been washed out) going thousands of feet up the pali (cliffs). Makani Kai was a tiny little airline, and earlier this year, it was bought by Southern Air Express and merged into its Mokulele subsidiary. It was a smart consolidation that helps Mokulele fortify its position. The Makani Kai name may not be flying any longer, but its presence lives on at Mokulele.
LATAM may have won the battle for Perú, but when it comes to Argentina, there are no winners. The government in Argentina has generally done nothing but prop up Aerolineas Argentinas and its subsidiary Austral at the expense of any semblance of competition and decent fares. LATAM decided it was a fight worth winning, so it bought a half stake in an Argentine airline and was stymied in its efforts by the government every step of the way. Eventually, a new government took over and went in the complete opposite direction. A ton of low cost carriers started up, including Norwegian Argentina, which was pure insanity. If there was ever a year to give up, this was it.
Let’s be clear on one thing here. LEVEL still exists-ish. It’s just that two of the three subsidiaries that formed the brand are now gone. LEVEL Europe was an ill-fated attempt to compete in Austria on short-haul flying after IAG failed to win the bid to buy Niki over there. I never understand why Vueling didn’t do that flying, just assuming it was probably because it never had any chance of profitability so they wanted to keep it separate. Meanwhile, LEVEL France was the old OpenSkies which BA started to fly all business-class passengers from France to the US. It became LEVEL after OpenSkies as killed, but it never worked. Now LEVEL is just a brand name with flights operated by Iberia… until it is finally euthanized. I just assume that’s coming sometime, but it hasn’t yet happened.
What happens when two bad ideas join forces? NokScoot! The weird airline with a logo that looks like it’s a chicken restaurant was a joint venture between Thai’s money-losing Nok Air and Singapore’s low-cost Scoot. In short, Scoot decided it wanted to start flying 777s around Asia from Bangkok’s old airport. But thanks to Thai ownership laws, it needed a partner. Enter Nok Air. The end result was nothing good. They gave up on this silly plan earlier this year. Of course, Scoot continues to be Singapore’s preferred vehicle for flying old airplanes with higher density around while Nok, well, I just can’t believe that Nok is still flying itself. Maybe it’ll find itself on this list in 2021.
LIAT is one of those airlines that every time I heard its name, I’d say, “wait, that’s still around?” But of course it was still around, because the governments of its many owners — Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, and a couple others — kept it propped up. I find it remarkable that the airline actually dates back all the way to 1956 when it began flying between Antigua and Montserrat. This airline has outlived so many others that were involved in its history. It was at one point owned by BWIA (now reborn as Caribbean Airlines) and Court Line (long gone). It flew for Eastern… the first one. And now the airline is in such bad shape it’ll be disbanded and reconstituted as some new entity. You didn’t think the governments would all just let it disappear completely, did you?
Good things do not happen when you find yourself in the orbit of a bankrupt airline. Tigerair originally was a low-cost darling around Asia. It expanded to many countries, including Australia in 2007. Eventually, the original Tigerair was merged into Scoot. The one in Australia, however, fell into the hands of Virgin Australia where it became the airline’s low-fare brand. Things never really worked out, and Virgin Australia plunged head-first into bankruptcy. As part of its restructuring, it decided to kill off the Tigerair brand. That leaves only Tigerair Taiwan keeping the name flying, though I doubt there’s much nostalgia out there for it anyway.
The saga of ExpressJet was one long, strange trip. It started out as Continental Express when several small regionals were smashed together. Eventually, Continental spun the airline out and it became ExpressJet. Continental scaled back, and ExpressJet ventured out with a few airplanes on its own, trying to fly 50-seat jets on smaller, Southwest-style routes. I flew it from Ontario to Tucson and loved it, but it was the wrong airplane at the wrong time… just as oil prices spiked. That ended quickly, and ExpressJet went back to flying only for others. Eventually, SkyWest’s affiliate ASA bought ExpressJet, and they kept the ExpressJet name. It didn’t go well, and just recently United took control of the airline through a partially-owned subsidiary. Remember I said ExpressJet was going to take over flying when Trans States died? That didn’t happen. Instead, CommutAir won that battle, and ExpressJet was shut down for good.
AirAsia may generally be a successful airline, but it has now fallen for one of the classic blunders… twice. The most famous of which is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” but only slightly less well-known is this: “Do not start an LCC in Japan.” The first AirAsia Japan flew for a year starting in 2012. It was a joint venture with ANA, but when AirAsia pulled out, the airline was rebranded Vanilla Air by ANA. It’s now part of ANA’s other LCC, Peach. But AirAsia wasn’t deterred. It partnered with Rakuten and a bunch of other investors to relaunch, this time from a Nagoya base. Again, it did not go well. The pandemic was the final nail in the coffin, but the airline already had one foot in the grave.
It’s hard to imagine an airline with worse luck than Cathay Pacific. Hong Kong was already suffering from weak demand due to the Chinese crackdown and ensuing protests. Then the pandemic hit. Cathay Pacific had to make bold moves, and it did when it decided to shut down Cathay Dragon, previously Dragonair. When Dragonair started, it was competition for Cathay Pacific, but it wasn’t long before Cathay Pacific started buying up shares. Eventually, it took over Dragonair entirely. Dragonair became the group’s China specialist with a large fleet of narrowbody aircraft, something Cathay Pacific did not have. But eventually, the dual branding became cumbersome. A half measure to change the airline’s name to Cathay Dragon was followed by a realization that the airline was no longer necessary. Cathay Pacific split up Cathay Dragon’s routes and aircraft with its now-owned LCC HK Express.
Saying this airline was born in 2004 isn’t really fair. Ok, so it did come from charter carrier Amira Air which started back then, but it wasn’t until airberlin failed that this version of Lauda came to be. When airberlin failed, its Niki subsidiary was up for grabs. The original founder, Niki Lauda, bought the remains and merged it into Amira Air to form Laudamotion in 2018. Right after that, Ryanair announced it was going to buy Laudamotion. At the time, it was believed that this was so Ryanair could get a subsidiary operating Airbus aircraft to help it in future aircraft negotiations. The airline had its name shortened to Lauda, and then the plan changed. Ryanair walked away from Airbus orders, and it had Lauda fly only under the Ryanair brand. In the end, due to unfavorable tax laws for companies in Austria, Lauda was shut down and a new Lauda Europe was miraculously created in Malta to fly the remaining A320s and eventually 737s.
The most surprising thing about Austral’s disappearance this year is that it didn’t happen much, much sooner. Austral was a fierce competitor to Aerolineas Argentinas on domestic and close international routes, but by the late 1990s, the two started getting closer together. Eventually, Aerolineas owned Austral, painted the airplanes nearly the same, and effectively just used Austral where it needed smaller aircraft — Austral flew Embraer 190s — to fly Aerolineas Argentinas routes. I never quite understand the point of maintaining the two brand names, but this is Argentina. And making smart aviation-related decisions is not something that happens often there. This year, however, the right thing finally happened.
I will admit that I did both some hemming and some hawing on whether to include this on the list. Is Interjet really dead? That’s hard to know. Interjet was considered to be the JetBlue of México, a more humane low cost carrier than its counterparts. While it may have been nice to fly, it sure made some bad decisions. Look no further than the choice to acquire Russian Sukhoi jets. Sukhoi could not support the airplanes adequately so far from home, and they broke… a lot. In fact, Interjet had to cannibalize some aircraft to keep the others flying. It ran into financial trouble, and over the last year it ended up canceling a day of flying here or there. Most of the Airbuses ended up going back to lessors, and it was the mighty Sukhois that kept the airline flying at all. Now it says it’s taking a break… during the busiest season of the year… but it’ll come back next year. Is it really gone for good? It’s hard to imagine the airline coming back, but there’s always a chance. Still, I’m calling this one toast.
Tomb of the Unknown Airline
- ADA Aerolínea de Antioquia (Colombia)
- Air Georgian (Canada)
- Amaszonas Uruguay (Uruguay)
- Borus (Russia)
- BRA Braathens Regional Aviation (Sweden)
- Connect Linhas Aéreas (Brazil)
- ExecAir of Naples (USA)
- Express Air (Canada)
- Flyest (Argentina)
- Ghadames Air Transport (Libya)
- Go2Sky (Slovakia)
- Island Express Air (Canada)
- J.A.R. Aircraft Services (USA)
- Jet Asia Airways (Thailand)
- Jet Time (Denmark)
- Korea Express Air (South Korea)
- Montenegro Airlines (Montenegro)
- Nantucket Express (USA)
- ONE Airlines (Chile)
- Pacific Airways (USA)
- Palestinian Airlines (Egypt)
- Rahila Air (Libya)
- REALtonga (Tonga)
- SAGA – Sahel and Gulf Airlines (Chad)
- Shoreline Aviation (USA)
- South Pacific Airlines (Hong Kong)
- SunExpress Deutschland (Germany)
- Wings of Lebanon (Lebanon)