Braniff Airways was once the world's sixth largest airline. Oklahoma City insurance man and financier Thomas Elmer Braniff and four friends founded the Oklahoma City-Tulsa Airline, beginning with partial payment on a five-seat Stinson Detroiter airplane. On June 20, 1928, this aircraft made its maiden voyage between the two cities, piloted by the founder's brother Paul. Three months later a group of Oklahoma businessmen invested in the company and changed its name to Paul R. Braniff, Incorporated, despite the fact that Thomas Braniff was in charge of the fledgling carrier.
Universal Air Lines, a St. Louis conglomerate seeking to develop an air-rail network in the center of the country to compete with Transcontinental Air Transport, a forerunner of Trans World Airlines, bought the company in 1929 and renamed it Braniff Air Lines. In 1930 Braniff Airways was incorporated and went public as a subsidiary of the Universal Air Lines System, with Paul Braniff as secretary-treasurer and Thomas Braniff as president. Universal sold its Braniff division to Aviation Corporation, the holding company that became American Airlines in 1934 (see AMR CORPORATION). Within two years Braniff adopted the advertising slogan "The World's Fastest Airlines" and began using Lockheed Vega aircraft to add routes to Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Wichita Falls, Texas.
Braniff was close to insolvency when the United States Post Office awarded it an airmail route between Dallas and Chicago in 1934. At the time airmail routes were the lifeblood of many small airlines, since they guaranteed a source of revenue in an unpredictable business climate. The same year Braniff moved company operations and maintenance facilities to Love Field, Dallas, from Oklahoma City. In 1935 the company bought Long and Harmon Air Service and gave it mail contracts connecting Dallas-Fort Worth and the Panhandle with Mexico through connections in Brownsville. As the first airline to offer service between Chicago and the Mexican border, Braniff adopted the advertising slogan, "From the Great Lakes to the Gulf."
During World War II Braniff surrendered over half its fleet to the United States military and trained military pilots, radio operators, and mechanics. It flew to the Panama Canal Zone and for the Air Transport Command. At the same time it continued to expand and in 1942 moved its administrative offices from Oklahoma City to Dallas. The Civil Aeronautics Board granted approval to serve South America in 1943, and the company was renamed Braniff International Airways. Braniff acquired Bowen Air Lines and operated it in 1935–36; it owned and operated Aerovias Braniff in Mexico from 1943 to 1946. By 1948 Braniff routes were opened to Ecuador, Panama, and Cuba, and in 1952 Braniff International merged with Mid-Continent Airlines, thus adding thirty-two routes to the twenty-nine domestic and nine international routes the company operated at the time.
T. E. Braniff was killed in a private plane crash near Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1954. Charles E. Beard, an air-transport expert who joined the firm as general traffic manager in 1935, was named president of the airline. Beard guided the airline to continued growth, particularly in South America. By 1957 Braniff's annual payroll had increased to over $22 million, and the company operated maintenance facilities in Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, Kansas City, San Antonio, and Lima, Peru. The company moved into a new ten-story headquarters building in Dallas and new terminal facilities at Love Field in 1958. Revenue passenger miles increased from 550 million in 1953 to 1.5 billion in 1964; during the same time the company's one-cent-per-share earnings increased to $2.03.
In August 1964 the Dallas-based Greatamerica Corporation, an insurance company, acquired 57.5 percent of Braniff stock. Troy Post, Greatamerica's Texas-born chairman, had decided to purchase Braniff after his senior vice president in charge of finance, C. Edward Acker, concluded a study of poorly managed companies and listed Braniff among the worst. To lead Braniff, Post recruited Harding L. Lawrence, former executive vice president of Continental Airlines. In 1965 Lawrence replaced Beard as president and chief executive officer of the airline and reincorporated Braniff Airways in Nevada in 1966. From that time until 1990, despite subsequent changes, Post and his administration dominated the firm. Lawrence brought a flamboyant style to the airline and oversaw Braniff's greatest period of growth. Declaring that "sameness is boring," he announced an "end of the plain plane" by painting company aircraft in seven bright solid colors, hiring an interior decorator to redesign cabins and terminals, and having world-renowned Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci design revealing uniforms for company flight attendants. In November 1967 Post sold Greatamerica and a controlling interest of Braniff stock to Ling-Temco-Vought, Incorporated (see LTV CORPORATION). Friction arose when Braniff executives blamed LTV for bleeding the airline of cash during the late 1960s to finance other acquisitions. In 1971, on the orders of the United States Department of Justice, LTV was forced to divest itself of Braniff to purchase a steel company. Braniff International Corporation was formed in 1972 as a holding company with Braniff Airways.
By 1969 the company had become an exclusively jet airline using the advertising slogan, "If You've Got It, Flaunt It!" After his "Jellybean Airline" acquired South American competitor Panagra Airways (Pan American-Grace Airways) in 1967, Lawrence commissioned artist Alexander Calder to paint a DC-8, "to focus international attention on South America as a vacation destination." Calder also painted a Braniff Boeing 727 red, white, and blue in 1976 to commemorate the United States Bicentennial. By 1978 the airline was flying to destinations in the mainland United States, Hawaii, South America, and London, Paris, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam.
The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 prompted Lawrence to embark on what was then the greatest expansion in airline history; acting on the conviction that survival in a deregulated environment was dependent on size, he added thirty-one destinations to Braniff service over the next two years. Long-term debt increased over $305 million from 1978 to the end of 1979, exacerbated by higher fuel prices and interest rates and a countrywide recession that led to decreased air travel in mid-1979. In the third quarter of 1979, generally the industry's most profitable quarter, Braniff lost $9.8 million, its first loss since early 1975. By 1980 interest payments rose to more than $92 million, and between 1978 and 1980 Braniff's net worth fell from roughly $250 million to just over $66 million. In 1979 Braniff withdrew from ten unprofitable routes, citing high fuel prices and low traffic levels. To raise cash the company began selling its more modern planes and relying on older, less fuel-efficient planes. Layoffs in 1979–80 reduced employees from a high of 15,000 to 11,500, and in 1980 the company withdrew from its unprofitable routes in the Far East. That year Braniff lost $131 million, an industry record at the time.
In December 1980 Lawrence resigned, and in January 1981 John J. Casey, executive vice president since 1968, was named chairman, president, and CEO. Casey, a former Seaboard World Airlines and American Airlines executive, refocused the company on its shorter routes and obtained a 10 percent pay cut agreement from union employees, but he was unable to stop the red ink and was shortly forced to lay off another 1,000 employees and discontinue all routes to Europe except the London route. In late 1981 Casey hired Howard D. Putnam, former president and chief executive officer of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, to assume similar duties at Braniff. Putnam and Philip Guthrie, the executive vice president of finance, reduced the number of fares from 582 to fifteen and removed first-class seats from domestic flights. By the end of 1981 Braniff had a negative net worth estimated at $90 million. Unable to meet its payroll, Braniff International Corporation ceased operations in May 1982, recalled its sixty-two aircraft, fired all but 225 of its 9,000 employees, and filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors.
Two attempts to resurrect the airline failed. In 1983 the Pritzker family of Chicago obtained bankruptcy-court approval for a $70 million offer to revive the airline. In 1984 a new Braniff, Incorporated, launched its first flight with a fleet of thirty planes under the direction of president William Slattery, formerly chief of European operations for Trans World Airlines. Of the company's 2,200 employees, 98 percent had worked for the old Braniff and agreed to return to work for lower wages. The low-cost airline, headquartered in Dallas, operated routes out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to twenty-one cities. In 1988 Philadelphia investors Jeffrey W. Chodorow and Arthur G. Cohen bought the company, but increased price competition forced the airline to declare bankruptcy again in 1989 and ground its jets in November of the same year. Chodorow and Cohen started flights again under the Braniff name in 1991, using the assets of Emerald Airlines, a Houston charter airline they purchased in 1990. Under new chief executive officer Gregory B. Dix, the company attempted to carve a niche for itself in the leisure travel market by offering $79 one-way fares from Dallas-Fort Worth to Newark and Los Angeles. In 1992 the company ceased operations, again citing increased fare wars. By 1993 all that remained of the former airline was Dalfort Aviation, a training enterprise associated with Love Field in Dallas.