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How 25 airlines became Delta, United, and American: Then & Now

·2 min read
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The battle for Spirit Airlines (SAVE) took another turn over the weekend, as Frontier Group (ULCC) wrote to Spirit Airlines asking for the discount carrier for more time before a critical shareholder vote.

The proposed merger is the latest for an industry that has been consolidating since it was deregulated by Congress and President Carter in 1978. Ticket prices and flight routes that were once dictated by the government were now left to the airlines and markets to sort out. Fierce competition drove down pricey fares and gave way to the modern hub-and-spoke model that is standard in the industry.

Amid the boom in airline expansion also came several high profile busts — and a wave of mergers and acquisitions ensued.

What's now American Airlines (AAL) was once a dozen different carriers, including TWA, Eastern Airlines, Mohawk Airlines, U.S. Air, American West, and, yes, Trump Airlines.

American Airlines Merger History
American Airlines Merger History

Delta Air Lines (DAL) and United Airlines (UAL) followed similar paths, variously scooping up names from yesteryear like PanAm, U.S. Air, and Eastern Airlines.

While the airlines were deregulated, the airports — run by local governments — were not.

These entities couldn't keep pace with the expansion and didn't charge more for runway space during peak times. Airport skies turned into parking lots and delays became common. Sounds familiar, though for very different reasons than what travelers experience today.

Delta and United Airlines Merger History
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines Merger History

Back in the golden age of the 1960s, luxury planes featured private bars, restaurants — and even piano lounges. This gave way to the cattle cars we know today, with all their attendant delays.

But it wasn't all bad for airline customers in the 1980s and 1990s, as the middle class could now jet-set around the world like the affluent.

Until the fallout from the 9-11 terror attacks, customer names weren't attached to airline tickets, which were as good as cash (and often traded as such). There were no TSA lines, no baggage fees, and full meals were included on longer flights... even in coach.

Smokers could also light up in designated "sections" separated by curtains until that practice was mercifully phased out by the turn of the century.

Passengers in the modern era face a fresh assortment of problems brought on by covid and rampant price inflation.

And while it's little solace to those stranded for days at airports with no end in sight, airlines will muddle through the current morass and eventually return to rational scheduling and on-time flights. When that is, and what carriers will survive to fly, remain the great unknowns.

Jared Blikre is a reporter hyper-focused on the markets on Yahoo Finance Live. Follow him @SPYJared.

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