Thomas Elmer Braniff, businessman and aviation pioneer, was born on December 6, 1883, in Salina, Kansas, to John A. and Mary Catherine (Baker) Braniff. In 1891 the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where Braniff attended public school until the end of the 1901 term, when he followed his family to the Oklahoma City area. There he joined his father's insurance business but soon opened his own office in partnership with Frank Merrill. On October 26, 1912, he married Bess Thurman; they had two children, who predeceased them.
Braniff built his company into one of the leading mortgage and insurance businesses in the Southwest and gained industry-wide attention by his development of a plan using surety bonds to guarantee first-mortgage indebtedness. He bought out Merrill in 1916 to form the T. E. Braniff Company, and in 1924 he bought out a partner in a loan firm and incorporated the business as Braniff Investment Company. He built Oklahoma City's first skyscraper, the T. C. Braniff Company headquarters, founded Prudential Fire Insurance Company with Ed Overholser in 1928, and in 1929 was one of the incorporators of Kansas City Fire Insurance Company.
In 1927, in partnership with several others, Braniff purchased a second-hand airplane. He and E. E. Westerfelt soon bought out the others. The following year Braniff joined his brother Paul in operating an airline between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, thus instituting the first airline in the Southwest, which became Braniff Airways, Incorporated, on November 3, 1930. Braniff moved the administrative headquarters to Love Field in Dallas on June 1, 1942, and took up residence in Dallas himself. At its peak, Braniff International was one of the largest airlines in the world, with 12,000 employees. It was the only major airline to retain the name of its founder.
Tom Braniff received honors from all over the world. He was a devout Catholic and was honored by his church as a Knight of Malta and a Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre; in 1944 he was granted the title Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Pius XII, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a layman. Braniff was Catholic cochairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews from 1946 until his death and helped found the World Organization for Brotherhood, from which he later received the first American citation. He served as a director of the American-Korean Foundation and as chairman of the Transportation and Commerce Committee of the United States Inter-American Council on Commerce and Production. Oklahoma City University and Southern Methodist University awarded him honorary degrees; he was also an honorary member of Delta Phi Epsilon, a foreign service fraternity. With his wife he set up the Braniff Foundation to support worthy religious, educational, and scientific undertakings. In 1952 the University of Denver selected him Aviation Man of the Year. Two years later, on January 10, 1954, he died in the crash of a private plane in Louisiana.