TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History (Part Three): America West Airlines

(Photo by aeroprints.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

America West was formed in 1983 in Phoenix, Arizona using a fleet of three Boeing 737-200s that were leased. America West operated mostly West Coast flights with their farthest flight being to

Kansas City. The airline saw major success in their 1983, quickly adding eight more Boeing 737-200s to 13 destinations before the end of the year. America West also formed a secondary hub in Las Vegas. The airline would add 10 more aircraft and 10 more destinations over the next two years.

America West was also important in adding the idea of employee “cross-utilization” across the airline. Cross-utilization was meant to train one employee to work multiple jobs in example of pilots and flight attendants being trained to work as gate agents. America West also cut costs by paying their pilots far below the industry average while also asking for employees to give 20% of their paycheck in airline stock.

America West’s success quickly came with their first setback with their hub at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport when the airport ran out of room for the growing airline to expand. A temporary concourse was added to Phoenix Sky Harbor while the proposed Terminal 4 was voted on and constructed. America West’s terminal problems didn’t stop their expansion efforts as they added larger Boeing 757s from Northwest Airlines as well as De Havilland Dash 8 prop planes to fly between their hubs of Phoenix and Las Vegas.

The expansion of the mid-1980s left America West’s profits very low and by 1986 the airline had reached its first bankruptcy. The airline was forced to cut costs and in the process lost part of its new Terminal 4 to their newest competitor, Southwest Airlines. America West received a boost when Australian carrier, Ansett Transport Industries Ltd., invested in America West, taking a 21.6% stake in the airline.

America West used their partnership with Ansett Australian to start looking into international flights. America West applied for a Phoenix-Sydney, Australia route to connect Ansett and America West, however the application was rejected. On the positive side for America West, they were approved for routes to Hawaii and Nagoya, Japan as well as a couple routes to Mexico. The airline used former KLM Boeing 747s to fly the routes from Phoenix.

The 1990s started out very friendly for America West as the US Transportation Department upgraded America West to being classified as a major US carrier. The airline also took delivery of its first Airbus A320 after Braniff Airways went bankrupt and Airbus needed to get rid of the planes, leaving America West to get the A320s at very cheap costs.

Despite these advantages for America West, they still saw hardship in the 1990s. The airline had not expected to see an extremely high operating expense for Terminal 4, but were forced to pay astronomically high expenses on Terminal 4 compared to the much cheaper temporary concourse when T4 was being built. The airline also saw major losses on their Nagoya route, with most flights operating at near empty. With the Gulf War on the horizon in 1991, and fuel prices skyrocketing, America West went into its second bankruptcy.

The airline’s second bankruptcy saw drastic changes as the fleet was trimmed to 87 aircraft, including cutting all Boeing 747s and Dash 8s. The pacific market was abandoned because of the loss of the 747s. In order to save money, America West moved most of their smaller routes to Mesa Airlines, who operated flights as America West Express.

The employees also saw change under bankruptcy. The 20% stake employees had taken in the airline had become pointless and worthless. The bankruptcy also ended the the cross-utilization of crews after America West’s flight attendants unionized. The ending of the cross-utilization saw America West outsource some of the mechanic and baggage operations to other companies.

After three years of bankruptcy America West emerged once again with most of their fleet and hubs left intact. Continental and Mesa Airlines had formed a codeshare with America West in 1994 helping strengthen America West and bring them out of bankruptcy along with local Arizona businesses, including Dial Corp. and the Phoenix Suns NBA team, who gave $8 million to keep the airline running. America West used the bankruptcy as a way to help reinvent the airline. The carrier changed from a pale yellow and red livery to a green tail with grey zig-zags coming from the the rear of the plane, also the smaller America West logo was enlarged to billboard lettering. America West also placed an order for more Airbus A320s as replacements for the aging Boeing 737-200s.

America West was once again popular, and by the mid-1990s they looked for more than just Boeing 757s flying coast-to-coast to the eastern seaboard, thus entered the short lived Columbus hub. The airline formed a hub using Chautauqua Airlines ERJ-145s to fly around the east coast. The airline even added an America West Club by utilizing the old TWA Ambassadors’ Club at Port Columbus. The hub lasted less than 10 years before America West removed all but four of their flights, removing 46 flights from Columbus.

America West used the rebranding to also show its proud western roots. America West bought the naming rights to the Phoenix Suns’ NBA stadium for 30-years at the cost of $26 million. The airline would often run sales based off of how the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals, and Phoenix Suns performed in their respected athletics. The airline had three Boeing 757s given the each of the teams respected colors and logos. America West went a step further, adding full fuselage liveries for the states of Arizona, Nevada, and Ohio. Along with this the airline also added an “America Hand in Hand” livery showing all of America with the Golden Gate bridge on one side of the plane and the Statue of Liberty on the other with various landmarks in between the two.

America West continued to strengthen their western presence in Las Vegas and Phoenix hubs during the start of the 21st century. By 2000, America West had peaked with 860 daily departures to 88 destinations across North America. The airline had retired their last Boeing 737-200 leaving them with Airbus A319 and A320 and Boeing 757-200 left in the fleet. America West continued to utilize Mesa Airlines’ regional fleet for shorter flights too, with the latter continuing to fly Bombardier CRJ-200s, CRJ-700s and CRJ-900s.

With the Columbus hub now closed, America West wanted to once again try to improve their eastern presence but this time via a merger. America West saw bankrupt US Airways as a way to gain eastern hubs of Charlotte, New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Both airlines accepted the idea of America West buying out US Airways, with US Airways being the name that would be kept. The America West Clubs were quickly rebranded to US Airways Clubs and a new fleet livery was unveiled taking aspects of both airlines’ brands. The new livery used US Airways’s navy and red colors with the basic design of the 1990s America West scheme. The livery was placed on all new aircraft that America West and US Airways had on order. By 2007 all America West flights had disappeared from flight boards.

Although the America West name can no longer be found on the flightboard, America West can still be easily seen. Along with the current US Airways livery, US Airways flies two Airbus A319s still wearing the America West colors, one of each of America West’s liveries. The America West callsign “Cactus” and ICAO code AWE are used for all US Airways flights. All previous aircraft owned by America West still wear their original N—AW tail numbers, thus separating them from the old US Airways tail numbers N—US and the new US Airways tail numbers N—UW. US Airways also kept most of America West’s special paint schemes but transitioned them from Boeing 757s to Airbus A319s, including the state planes (except Ohio) and the Arizona Cardinals jet along with adding other NFL teams at US Airways hubs.

All of this is time permitting though with American Airlines repainting the US Airways fleet into the American livery as they continue their merger. American has also promised to keep US-AW merger colored A321 and the two America West A319 retrojets. So even though America West might not be gone, it isn’t forgotten: for now.

Ian McMurtry

Ian McMurtry

Ian has been an avgeek since 2004 when he started spotting US Airways Express planes at Johnstown Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Wichita and enjoys spotting planes in Kansas City and Wichita as well as those flying at high altitudes over his home. He is a pilot with more than 40 hours of experience behind a Cessna 172, Diamond DA-20, and Piper PA-28. He flies Southwest Airlines on most of his domestic flights and Icelandair when flying to Europe. Ian’s route map spans from Iceland and Alaska in the north to St. Maarten in the south. He is a student at Wichita State University, where he will study aerospace and mechanical engineering.
Ian McMurtry