TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History: Air Florida

Photo provided by Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland (Air Florida DC-9-15RC; N75AF, December 1980/ CDX) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At one point in time most states had their own airline. The Sunshine state of Florida was no different. However, unlike airlines in smaller states like Air Illinois or Air Oregon, Air Florida experienced moderate success until a tragic event changed their fortunes.

In the 1970s, Miami was developing into a thriving metropolis. The Dolphins were experiencing their best years, a new influx of citizens had recently arrived from Cuba, and tourism was booming. To take advantage of this boom in tourism to the Sunshine State, Eli Timoner, a Miami native, formed Air Florida and brought on Ted Griffin as President. Griffin had experience in marketing to the Miami area, being a former marketing director for Eastern Airlines.

The airline originally started by offering flights within the state using Boeing 707s. These were quickly replaced with Lockheed Electra’s L-188. Throughout the mid to late ’70s, the airline switched back to jet power with the Douglas DC-9 and the Boeing 737-200. For most of the ’70s, flights were kept within Florida, serving smaller cities such as Gainesville and Tallahassee, which today receive small amounts of commercial service.

In 1975, Ed Acker, the former CEO of Braniff International, acquired the airline and sought to expand it. He was bolstered with the Airline Deregulation Act, which allowed him to freely expand his airline. Routes soon began outside the state, with Air Florida becoming a major player on the lucrative Northeast to Florida routes. In addition to the domestic routes, Air Florida expanded internationally with service to major European cities such as London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. Additionally, the carrier operated to Central America and the Caribbean market. These international services were operated by the Douglas DC-10-30. In certain markets in Europe, Air Florida leased BAc 1-11’s operated by British Island Airlines.

In 1980, Air Miami began operating service as Air Florida Commuter, which became a collaboration of airlines operating service from the smaller airports in Florida, such as Ocala and Marco Island. This service was discontinued in 1984.

The eighties saw significant fortune changes for Air Florida. First, in 1981, Acker left the airline to become the CEO and President of the struggling Pan American Airways. After he left, Air Florida got into a heavy bidding war to acquire Western Airlines. The idea was to expand service into the Western United States, Canada, and Mexico. However, the takeover attempt failed and Air Florida was only able to acquire a 16% stake in the Los Angeles based carrier. The most significant event in the decade for the airline was also the most tragic. On January 13th, 1982 Air Florida flight 90 crashed into the 14th St. Bridge shortly after takeoff from Washington Reagan National Airport. The crash resulted in the deaths of 78 people and was caused by the pilot’s inexperience in the cold weather of the northern states.

The crash of flight 90 proved to be the catalyst for Air Florida. The airline was already struggling due to the inflated cost in their attempted acquisition of Western. The airline also focused heavily on foreign currency trading to make a profit. These factors combined to result in the airline declaring bankruptcy and ceasing operations on July 3rd, 1984. At the time many flight crews had been sitting idle due to an inability to renew leases on the DC-10s, and the airline had over 18 months of unprocessed credit card purchases.

Although numerous factors lead to the collapse of Air Florida the most significant was the fatal accident of flight 90, which significantly damaged the airline’s perception in the public’s eye. The airline was fueled by the tourist industry to Florida and the growing snowbird market but became too big for its shoes, which ended in collapse.

Daniel Morley

Daniel Morley

Daniel has always had aviation in his life; from moving to the United States when he was two, to family vacations across the U.S., and back to his native England. He currently resides in South Florida and attends Nova Southeastern University, studying Human Factors in Aviation. Daniel has his Commercial Certificate for both land and sea, and hopes to one day join the major airlines.
Daniel Morley