Trans World Airlines Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A global airline that was a dominant U.S. international carrier for much of the twentieth century.

Trans World Airlines (TWA), as a history of the company claims, is “Kansas City’s Hometown Airline.” It was founded in Kansas City, and although its headquarters resided in other places over the next seventy-five years, in the last years of TWA’s existence its headquarters returned to the place of its birth. TWA began as a combination of two early companies, Western Air Express, formed in 1925, and Transcontinental Air Transport, formed in 1929. They joined together in 1930 to call themselves Transcontinental and Western Airlines, Inc. With St. Louis, Missouri, as its headquarters, the company had ambitious plans. In its initial year as TWA it began flying a route that was laid out by Charles A. Lindbergh and that extended from coast to coast, from New York to Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. The transcontinental service took 36 hours, which included an overnight stop in St. Louis. This auspicious beginning was followed by measured but impressive growth, with the company eventually providing a major world avenue for travel and commerce.

TWA’s decline began in 1992, when the company filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. In 1994, its headquarters moved back to Kansas City from Mt. Kisco, New York, and its leaders, appointed by the company’s employees and creditors, made courageous moves to regain financial security. Its problems continued through difficult times, however, until the company was acquired by American Airlines in 2001.

Crossing the Continent and the Atlantic

TWA began as a large-scale operation. Lindbergh’s concept of an intercontinental airline captured the public’s imagination and the company flourished. Recognizing the need for a larger, more comfortable airplane, it began working with the Douglas Aircraft Company, which was encouraged to build a twin-engine plane capable of carrying up to twenty passengers. This plan resulted in the DC-1, which was completed in 1933. Only one DC-1 was built, but the production model, the DC-2, was ready for delivery in 1934, when it began service for TWA and several other airlines, including KLM. The TWA DC-2 carried eighteen passengers and a crew of two. It began service on the TWA Columbus-Pittsburgh-Newark route. In the following year, the airline began assigning air hostesses to its DC-2 flights.

The year 1934 saw the beginning of a twelve-year period of growth under the presidency of Jack Frye, a well-known pilot. He was the first of three men to hold the reins of the company for long time spans, the others being Howard Hughes and Carl Icahn. Under Frye, the company expanded its routes and developed new concepts of passenger comfort, including sleeper berths, introduced in 1937, and in-flight audio, introduced in 1940. Flights in the four-engine Boeing 370, the Stratoliner, which was the first pressurized all-weather commercial airplane, also began in 1940. The TWA Stratoliners carried thirty-three passengers at speeds in excess of 240 miles per hour.

Howard Hughes acquired a majority interest in TWA in 1940 and continued to hold control for twenty-five years, though he was never an officer of the company. He did take a strong interest in the company and even flew TWA planes on occasion. A notable flight occurred in 1944, when Howard Hughes and Jack Frye, the company president, flew a TWA Lockheed Constellation across the country from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in 6 hours, 57 minutes, to set a speed record. The relationship between the company and Hughes was not always smooth, however. The company sued him in 1961 and he finally divested himself of TWA stock in 1965.

A Worldwide Airline

After World War II, the airline began expanding its international service. In 1946, it introduced flights on the Lockheed Constellation from New York to Paris, with stops in Gander and Shannon. As soon as it could, it expanded its transatlantic service further with flights to Rome, Athens, Madrid, and Lisbon. By 1950, it was one of two premier U.S. airlines to Europe. In that year it decided to change its name to reflect that fact, so Transcontinental and Western Airlines officially became Trans World Airlines.

The 1950’s were eventful for the airline. It began service with the Superconstellations, which made it possible to fly nonstop from New York to Paris and other European cities. It introduced polar flights so that passengers could fly directly from California to Europe. It also began jet flights, scheduling Boeing 707’s across the United States and later to Europe. Less propitious events also occurred in the 1950’s; the Kansas City airport and TWA facilities were severely damaged by the great 1951 flood, and in 1954 the company began moving its executive offices to New York.

In the mid-twentieth century, TWA was able to keep a pioneering role in its use of the latest and best airplanes, a role it was to give up later in the century. By 1967, it had converted entirely to jet planes, the first U.S. airline to completely abandon prop planes. In 1970, it began transcontinental flights in the Boeing 747, the first airline to use this jumbojet for the Los Angeles-to-New York route. Two years later it introduced the three-engine, medium-range Lockheed 1011, the third U.S. jumbojet to be developed. Almost thirty years later, it was one of the few U.S. airlines to still fly the L-1011, which had ceased production in 1983.

With the many multicomponent corporations that were formed in the 1970’s and 1980’s, TWA joined the trend. In 1979, the airline joined Hilton International, Century 21 Real Estate Corporation, Canteen Corporation and Spartan Food Services to make up the Trans World Corporation. This arrangement did not last, however, and the airline left Trans World Corporation four years later, to become public. During that era, the airline became one of the first to use the new Boeing 767 plane for long-distance flights. It first flew the two-engine 767 across the continent and then, when the plane was approved for ETOPS (extended twin engine operations) so that it could fly as far as three hours from the nearest suitable runway, TWA flew it on transatlantic runs.

Changing Ownership and Difficult Times

An ownership change occurred in 1985 when the financier Carl Icahn acquired a majority interest. In 1988, the airline became a private company wholly owned by Icahn, who moved the headquarters from New York City to his office building in Mt. Kisco, New York.

The good fortune enjoyed for years by the airline began to flag in the 1990’s. To acquire needed cash, it sold several of its principal transatlantic routes to American Airlines in 1992, and later that year filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. TWA personnel agreed to various concessions in exchange for a 45 percent equity stake in the company. In the following year, Icahn resigned and the company was managed by a committee that was appointed by the employees and creditors. At that time the headquarters moved back to Kansas City, the site of the company’s birth.

Recognizing that its fleet was more aged than that of its competitors, TWA began an ambitious program of new plane purchases in 1996, ordering Boeing 757’s, 767’s, 717’s and Airbus A320’s and A328’s. These were their first orders for new planes since 1985 and they put the company back in the mainstream of airlines flying modern equipment.

The end of TWA came in the year 2001, with the purchase of the company by American Airlines. American agreed to a price of $500 million plus assumption of debts. TWA still flew after the sale, but it gradually changed as it was absorbed into its one-time competitor. The name TWA was no longer used on flights as of December 3, 2001.

Notable Losses

Because of its world prominence and its route that took it into the Middle East, TWA was plagued by incidents related to political problems having nothing to do with the airline. The first of these occurred in 1974, when a TWA 707 exploded and crashed into the Ionian sea as a result of a terrorist bomb. In 1985, also in Greece, a TWA 727 was hijacked, the passengers were held in the plane for several days, and one person was killed. Two years later a bomb exploded in a 727, tearing a hole in the fuselage through which four passengers were sucked out. Two other high-profile crashes affected the airline in those times. The first was the crash of a 727 in Virginia in 1974, when the plane missed the runway and crashed into a mountain, killing all on board. The most spectacular crash, however, was that of Flight 800, a 747 plane headed for Paris from New York, which exploded over the ocean near Long Island in 1996. After a long investigation, the official cause of the explosion was said to be a spark that ignited a fuel tank, but many people still believed that the real cause was something more sinister, such as a missile that was said to have been accidentally launched by a nearby U.S. Navy ship.

  • Karash, J. A., and R. Montgomery. TWA: Kansas City’s Hometown Airline. Kansas City, Mo.: Kansas City Star Books, 1992. A history of the airline told from the point of view of the city where it began. Good coverage of important TWA personnel, such as Charles A. Lindbergh, Howard Hughes, and Carl Icahn.
  • Sanders, J. The Downing of TWA Flight 800. New York: Zebra Books, 1997. This is one of the books that purports to prove that the famous crash of Flight 800 was the result of an accidental launch of a missile by the U.S. Navy.
  • Snyder, R. A. Negotiating with Terrorists: TWA Flight 847. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Institute of International Affairs, 1994. An analysis of the famous hijacking of a TWA plane full of passengers, with recommendations regarding procedures to follow in such an event.
  • Sperling, R. J. Howard Hughes’ Airline. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. This is an informal history of the airline, told primarily by interviews of former employees and full of anecdotes.
  • Stoller, E. The TWA Terminal. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. This is primarily a photographic essay about the famous TWA terminal at JFK International Airport in New York. The photographs were taken in 1962, when the terminal was new. Designed by the internationally prominent architect Eero Saarinen, the TWA terminal was considered an architectural icon of its time. Seeing the book makes a reader poignantly aware of the ravages of time that have been visited upon this once-luminous building.

Accident investigation

Air carriers

Airline industry, U.S.




Charles A. Lindbergh

Lockheed Martin

National Transportation Safety Board

Safety issues


Categories: History