From Lindbergh to Icahn: Tracking the takeoff and landing of Trans World Airlines
Trans World Airlines continues to fascinate airline buffs more than 20 years after its demise. It underwent three bankruptcies and was eventually acquired by American Airlines.
Two authors had in-depth access to the TWA archives in St. Louis to research the company’s expansive history - from Charles Lindbergh to Howard Hughes and finally Carl Icahn.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Wayne Pratt spoke with Daniel Rust and Alan Hoffman about their book “Come Fly With Me: The Rise and Fall of Trans World Airlines.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Wayne Pratt: What makes TWA so compelling to want to write a book about it?
Daniel Rust: Today, many people don't recognize the name Trans World Airlines. But in the 20th century, it was a premier airline. One of the world's largest airlines. And exemplified the new technology of air travel and the allure, the drama of air travel.
Alan Hoffman: TWA is kind of paradigmatic of the airline history of the United States. In particular, kind of the glory days of the 1950s and the 1960s when the airlines were really doing everything they could to make flying as enjoyable and even exciting as possible.
Pratt: The airline placed one of its largest hubs in St. Louis. What was behind that decision?
Rust: Transcontinental Air Transport or T-A-T. This airline was developed in the late 1920s when it was still not seen as practical to fly at night. So it was an air-rail combination. It took 48 hours to travel across the country on T-A-T. St. Louis was strategic for them because Charles Lindbergh was one of the key figures of T-A-T and of course very famous in St. Louis.
Fast forwarding to deregulation, TWA’s opportunity to consolidate their operations into St. Louis and not try to compete in the congested hub at O'Hare in Chicago made a very targeted effort to build up Lambert Airport as their primary domestic hub with an international hub at JFK in New York.
Pratt: What finally ended the airline?
Hoffman: Carl Icahn hammered the last nails into the coffin of TWA. All of the U.S. airlines, of course, suffered extreme financial distress as a result of airline deregulation. A number of old airlines went totally bankrupt. Perhaps the most striking of all was TWA’s great rival, Pan American. TWA managed to last for another 10 years largely through the dedication of the airline's employees trying to keep the airline going and make it survive and even succeed.
Pratt: How would you describe the history of this airline in just a few short sentences?
Rust: TWA is almost like a case study of an airline that succeeded wildly early on due to the dedication and vision of its leadership. And then would persevere through a very tumultuous period in the later 20th century with leadership that was really putting other interests first besides the airline itself.
Hoffman: TWA was created, nurtured and then destroyed by these three larger-than-life personalities, Charles Lindbergh, of course. Howard Hughes and Carl Icahn, who kind of epitomized the greed is good culture of the 1980s.
So TWA is kind of a story of these three characters who made the airline what it was and then ultimately contributed to his undoing.
Rust and Hoffman have three scheduled book signings:
Thursday, Nov. 9 from 5:45 to 6:15 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.
Friday, Nov. 10 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the TWA Museum in Kansas City.
Saturday, Jan. 20 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the St. Charles City-County Library, Middendorf-Kredell Branch