With airlines looking towards the start of the 21st century many carriers were planning on how to celebrate the new year. For startup carrier Air21, it was all about revolutionizing the flying experience. The airline, which was named after the 21st century, marketed itself as the “carrier of the future” and started plans in 1994 to start flying around the western portion of the U.S.
The creators of the carrier, David Miller, Mark Morro, and David J. VanderLugt started with plans to operate Fokker F28 aircraft out of Fresno, Calif. They felt that Fresno was a good connecting point between coastal California cities and the far western cities of Denver and Salt Lake City. Fresno also offered cheaper landing fees than larger airports, allowing Air21 to keep airfares lower than its competitors.
The carrier launched operations in December 1995 with flights from Fresno to Las Vegas, Palm Springs, and San Francisco. By summer of 1996, the carrier had added service to Los Angeles, Grand Junction, Salt Lake City, and Colorado Springs.
However, things never materialized for Air21, as the carrier wanted to add McDonnell-Douglas MD-80s but no deal ever occurred, leaving the airline with the much smaller Fokker F28. The carrier attempted to add charter flights to the gambling cities of Las Vegas and Atlantic City but those markets were not providing the monetary backing that Air21 needed to keep pushing forward.
Air21’s losses were compounded in May 1996 when ValuJet Flight 592 plummeted into the Everglades. While the loss of life occurred on another carrier in a different market from Air21, the idea of an ultra-low-cost carrier was shaken and while the NTSB started to look closer into these carriers, the consumers looked elsewhere. By the end of summer, the carrier was seeing financial difficulties, terminating deals with Reno Air and Delta Air Lines to provide ground support for the carrier outside of Fresno.
As the carrier unraveled, so did the leadership. Tensions grew between the three main founders and eventually Mark Morro walked away from his position in December of 1996. Following Morro’s departure, the carrier had no leader and no cash and by the end of the month, Air21 had filed for bankruptcy.
David Miller was the only founding member still at Air21 and he assisted in filling out all necessary paperwork to ground the carrier. The airline grounded all flights on Dec. 20, 1996 and by December 31st the carrier had returned all five of their Fokker F28s.