PSA Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

California airline initially limited to intrastate routes to avoid Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) regulation.

A “Friendly” Airline

Ken Friedkin started Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) in San Diego in 1949. Friedkin had run a flight school for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II. After the war, he wanted to continue training pilots. His flight school was successful, training hundreds of veterans using the G.I. Bill to get an education. By 1948, the school attracted fewer students as most of the veterans completed their education and entered the workforce. Friedkin decided to start a charter service transporting passengers around Southern California. The charter service grew into a scheduled airline, Pacific Southwest Airlines.

On May 6, 1949, the first PSA flight, a DC-3 with twenty-seven passengers, left San Diego’s Lindbergh Field bound for Oakland, California, via Burbank. The airfare for the trip was $15.60. The airline flew only on weekends and had very low fares. As a result, PSA attracted a significant number of military personnel, causing some to suggest that its initials stood for the “Poor Sailor’s Airline.” By 1951, the airline was serving San Diego, Hollywood/Burbank, Oakland, and San Francisco. Because PSA flew only within the state of California, it was able to avoid regulation by the Civil Aeronautics Board.

PSA grew through the 1950’s with the inauguration of service to Los Angeles International Airport in August, 1958. Passengers traveled from San Diego to Los Angeles or Burbank for $5.45. Passengers paid $17.26 for the flight from San Diego to San Francisco. In 1959, the airline added three Lockheed L-188 Electra propjets to its fleet. The airline required its stewardesses to wear false eyelashes and bright makeup. PSA would become known for its attractive flight attendants.

“Personality Sells Airlines”

In the 1960’s, airline management encouraged crew-passenger interaction. Flight attendants collected tickets on the planes. Flight crews were instructed on how to make conversation with passengers, who were to be treated like guests in the crewmembers’ own homes. By the end of the decade, the airline was dubbed the “Personality Sells Airlines.” Ken Friedkin’s business philosophy was that flying should be fun. When he died in 1962, his successors at PSA continued his philosophy.

PSA carried more than one million passengers over its four-city route in 1962, earning a profit of $1,368,770. Despite competing with TWA, United, and Western, PSA managed to garner a 50 percent market share. One secret to its success was its stewardesses. PSA was known nationally for its suntanned “California Girl” flight attendants, who wore outfits known as “banana skins.” Introduced in 1962, form-fitting outfits zippered all the way up the front. One flight attendant noted that while wearing the outfit, “everything showed.”

The airline entered the jet age in 1965 with the purchase of five Boeing 727-100’s. The airline added San Jose to its route system in 1966. By the end of the decade, PSA’s fleet included one DC-9, one Boeing 727-100, fourteen Boeing 727-200’s, and nine Boeing 737-200’s.

“Catch Our Smile”

A key element of PSA’s corporate culture was adopted when smiles were painted on the aircraft in 1970. Soon all identifying artwork included the smile logo. The “Catch Our Smile” theme defined the airline until USAir purchased it in 1986.

Airline management made some strategic mistakes during the 1970’s. In the early part of the decade, the airline launched a diversification campaign called “Fly/Drive/Sleep.” PSA would provide passengers with air service, a rental car, and a hotel room. Among PSA’s notable purchases was the Queen Mary, anchored in Long Beach, California. The campaign was not a financial success.

The late 1970’s marked the beginning of a decade of expansion. PSA began interstate service to Nevada in 1978. The airline experienced tragedy on September 25, 1978, when PSA Flight 182 collided in midair with a privately owned Cessna 172, killing 144 people, including 37 PSA employees. PSA added additional interstate routes in the early 1980’s. In 1980, PSA became an international airline with service to Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan, Mexico. PSA pilots walked off the job for fifty-two days in 1980, causing the airline to cancel flights. More than 9 million passengers boarded PSA flights in 1985. As a result of fare wars, the airline lost $600,000, but the holding company recorded a $26.8 million profit from nonairline ventures in 1980.

The airline industry experienced significant consolidation during a two-year period from 1986 to 1987. PSA management worked to remain independent. In November, 1986, American Airlines purchased Air Cal, PSA’s major competitor in California, a sign that PSA would soon be bought. The USAir Group purchased PSA for $400 million in 1987.

Tragedy struck PSA before the airline was completely integrated into USAir. On December 7, 1987, Flight 1771 was in the air between Los Angeles and San Francisco. David Burke, who had recently been fired by USAir, smuggled a gun aboard the plane. He shot the crew and then himself, causing the plane to crash from 23,000 feet into a cattle ranch near Harmony, California. The crash killed forty-four people. This incident was the first to be solved using data from the cockpit voice recorder. PSA’s last flight, Flight 1486, departed from San Diego on April 8, 1988.

  • Davis, R. E. G. Airlines of the United States Since 1914. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972. Examines PSA’s early history in light of the development of airline industry in the United States. Includes black-and-white illustrations of PSA planes.
  • Jacobsen, Meyers K. “‘Catch Our Smile’ (A History of Pacific Southwest Airlines).” AAHS Journal 45, no. 3 (Fall, 2000). Well-written, definitive history of Pacific Southwest Airlines.
  • Jones, Geoff. abc USAirways. Surrey, England: Ian Allan, 1999. A detailed reference work on US Airways that includes a history of PSA.
  • Labich, Kenneth. “Collision Course.” Newsweek 92, no. 15 (October 9, 1978). Illustrated examination of the collision of PSA Flight 182 with a Cessna.
  • Magnuson, Ed. “Nation: David Burke’s Deadly Revenge.” Time 130, no. 25 (December 21, 1987). Detailed discussion of the events leading to the PSA Flight 1771 crash in 1987.

Accident investigation

Air carriers

Airline industry, U.S.

Flight attendants

Flight recorder

US Airways

Women’s Airforce Service Pilots

Categories: History