This is a story of a Dallas-based airline that was led by an aviation entrepreneur and a lawyer; it faced a long legal battle with Braniff just to get into the air; it had a highly motivated group of employees; and once it took flight, it faced continued battles to reduce its competitive ability. No, I’m not talking about Southwest, but, the similarities are almost eerie. This very brief look at Pioneer Air Lines, the company at which my dad began his airline career, is the followup post I promised a few weeks ago.
The formation of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in 1938 essentially froze the number of airlines at about a dozen “trunk” carriers, which included familiar names like American, United, TWA, Delta, etc. The survivors are basically today’s legacy carriers. In 1939, the CAB created the first airline of a new category of airlines, feeder carriers, to provide service to smaller cities. ESSAIR, the first of this new type of airline, was authorized to begin experimental service from Houston to Amarillo. Braniff immediately began a legal campaign to keep ESSAIR grounded, which lasted four years. In the midst of World War II, the CAB ruled in ESSAIR’s favor, but service didn’t begin until August 1, 1945, with a flight from Houston to Amarillo via Austin, San Angelo, Abilene, and Lubbock.
As servicemen returned to civilian life, ESSAIR had a ready-made workforce. One of those men was General Robert J. Smith, who had helped lead the Air Transport Command in North Africa. Ironically, General Smith’s prewar job was Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Braniff. In addition to leading the fight to keep ESSAIR grounded, he had taken on such luminaries as Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern on Braniff’s behalf. General Smith partnered with Major Bill Long, a Dallas aviation legend to run Pioneer. Major Long became Chairman, and General Smith was President of the company. One of the first things they did was to change the company’s name. ESSAIR stood for Efficiency, Safety, and Speed by Air, and General Smith hated it. The new name was Pioneer Air Lines. At the same time, the corporate offices moved to Love Field, even though Dallas was, at the time, an offline city. Dallas eventually joined the route map, and at its zenith, Pioneer had a route system stretching from Dallas to Albuquerque and El Paso and from Amarillo to Houston.
Pioneer upgraded Lockheed 12s for war surplus DC-3s. About every other year, the CAB added new routes and took away existing routes and added and subtracted intermediate points. The CAB also enforced restrictions requiring every flight to stop at every station along a route. Some of these small Texas cities included Mineral Wells, Cisco, and Sweetwater. These restrictions were designed to limit Pioneer’s ability to compete with Braniff. In spite of the CAB’s restrictions, people flew Pioneer, and with an 83 percent load factor, the DC-3’s performance was strained.
In 1952, the airline bought and refurbished used Martin 202s (above, taken at Clovis, New Mexico, by my father) from Northwest to compete with Braniff’s Convair 340s, and Pioneer sold its DC-3s to the Air Force. However, Pioneer’s operating certificates were based on a subsidy from the CAB. The CAB frowned on the initial high cost of the 202s, and 11 months after they began operation, the CAB ordered Pioneer to discontinue the 202 operations immediately. This arbitrary decision almost killed the airline (which some say was the intent), and it got to the point where it couldn’t meet the payroll. This was a hard pill to swallow for a proud company that had been profitable, almost from day one. Fortunately, C.E. Woolman at Delta purchased spare engines from Pioneer and provided necessary cash flow for the payroll. (Mr. Woolman also offered to buy Pioneer so Delta could obtain the Dallas to Albuquerque route.)
This proud little airline managed to survive with a fleet of leased former United DC-3s, and in June 1954, a few 202s returned during the last year of operation when the CAB finally allowed Pioneer to overfly some smaller cities along a route. In spite of surviving this near death blow, the airline’s future was limited, and a merger with Continental was consummated on April 1, 1955. At the time, the two airlines were of similar size and operations. Pioneer’s Executive Vice President of Marketing, Harding Lawrence, would go on to create Continental’s Golden Jet campaign, and as CEO of Braniff, he would lead the fight to keep another new Texas airline, Southwest, out of the sky. (Thanks to Phoenix Flight Attendant Rick Covington for the first flight envelope above.)
Pioneer really lived up to its name. As the first feeder, it was later joined by airlines like Frontier, Texas International, Southern, and Allegheny, just to name a few. Never again would the CAB block feeder carriers from upgrading to modern equipment. Texas International later acquired Continental, which, in turn, recently acquired United. Allegheny grew into US Airways. Like Southwest, Pioneer had a distinctive livery with a big white bison on a blue tail, and it loved to celebrate. Each year on its anniversary, Pioneer held a big party in Dallas. In August 1954, Pioneer’s one-millionth passenger received a free set of expensive luggage, and all aircraft carried a sticker (above, with my father to the left) celebrating the fact. The passenger boarded in Amarillo, so my dad was part of the ceremony. Most importantly, Pioneer had a proud workforce, who in spite of government intervention, managed to provide a distinctive Customer Service delivery that made it the airline of choice on the routes it served. General Smith, the charismatic former lawyer, was loved by his people.
Like other members of the greatest generation, Pioneer employees are leaving us all too quickly. We owe them thanks for paving the way that showed it was possible to change the face of commercial aviation in Texas, and they did it with smiles, dedication, and great Customer Service. That does sound familiar.