Published in September 2015 issue
By David H. Stringer
Alleghny was a strong carrier, always ranking at or near the top in boarding and revenue statistics among the 13 Locals. It served an economically thriving territory that was rich in industry and had a large population base. On the Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia route alone, Allegheny’s share of the market jumped from 1% in 1959, prior to the inauguration of Commuter Express service, to 61% in 1961. Serving such a profitable market would have been management’s dream at most of the other Local Service Carriers.
Allegheny dropped turboprops from the fleet in 1962, when D. Napier & Son. Ltd., now under the banner of Rolls Royce, canceled the Eland-powered Convair 540 project. The venerable DC-3, which had served the company since 1949, also flew for Allegheny for the last time that year.
In 1963, Allegheny converted one of its Convair 440s to a cargo-carrying configuration, becoming the first Local Service Carrier to place an all-freight aircraft into operation. The success of the service prompted the company to convert a second aircraft, this time a Martin 202, to Cargoliner specifications. The company settled on the 202 as its standard aircraft for all-freight operations; two more of the type were eventually converted after being retired from passenger service.
While the federal government grappled with the issue of public service revenue (subsidy) for the Locals—the payment of which far exceeded what the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) had ever envisioned when initiating the feeder airline experiment— Allegheny’s management noted that, in 1963, 14 of the airline’s 38 certificated stations had produced 84% of total passenger and cargo revenues while the other 24 airports had produced only 16%. This was a fact of life for the Locals, one that Congress and the CAB would have to live with if they wanted these airlines to continue their mission of serving smaller cities. Les Barnes insisted that the CAB needed an affirmative plan for strengthening the Locals if the Board wanted to reduce subsidy payments without trimming ‘public service’ flights to smaller cities. Over the ensuing years, the CAB responded by relaxing route restrictions and granting the Locals innovative new non-stop authorities.
In his 1964 report to stockholders, Les Barnes said, “There is no question but that the local service airlines are steadily assuming more of the characteristics of regional airlines; however, in accomplishing this desirable transition, these airlines must not ignore their obligation to serve the intermediate smaller cities.”
Always looking ahead in anticipation of upcoming equipment needs, the company began its examination of jets for future use on ‘highly competitive’ routes. Les Barnes and his team were still interested in ‘jet-props’ to serve the rest of the system. Though the Napier Eland-powered Convair experiment had ended in 1962, Allegheny management was still studying the possibility of replacing the power plants on its piston-engined
Convair 440s, and decided to convert them to turbo-prop, Allison-powered Convair 580s. These modified twin-engine workhorses began to appear in 1965.
In addition to upgrading the Convair fleet, Allegheny introduced another jet-prop type, the Fairchild F-27J, later that same year. The two new types of aircraft, Convair 580s and Fairchild F-27Js, allowed for retirement of all of the remaining Martins from passenger service. The sturdy, reliable, model 202 ‘Executives’ had served the airline well for 10 years and, in the mid-1950s, had put Allegheny among the prestigious ranks of the few Locals that operated equipment larger than DC-3s. The time had come to drop them from front-line service, but the company retained three of the Martins to continue operating allcargo flights.
In 1966, Allegheny truly entered the jet age when it leased a single Douglas DC-9-14. The ‘short’ Dash 14 was a temporary member of the fleet as the company awaited delivery of six stretched DC-9-31s that it had on order. Those larger DC- 9s began to enter service the following year.
Because the DC-9-31s could carry a substantial amount of under-floor cargo on passenger flights, the airline finally retired the Martin 202 Cargoliners in May 1967. It phased out the last of the Convair 440s on September 15 that year, converting these aircraft to Allison-powered jetprop Convair 580s. Allegheny could now boast an all-turbine powered fleet.
In an experiment designed to improve service at smaller stations while, at the same time, saving money and resources by diverting large aircraft to more heavily patronized routes, the airline’s management team introduced the first Allegheny Commuter operation in 1967.
With the CAB’s permission, the company subcontracted its service at Hagerstown, Maryland, to Henson Aviation, a scheduled air-taxi operator. Barnes and his team had conceived the idea of subcontracting services in 1965, but said that an appropriate aircraft type for such operations had yet to be developed. That all changed in 1966, when the 15-passenger, fully-instrumented, turbine-powered Beechcraft 99 made its maiden flight.
In Les Barnes’s opinion, the Locals were now morphing into regional airlines, which, in Allegheny’s leadership role as an innovator, meant that it was time to turn over the responsibility of operating in some small stations—the reason for the Locals’ existence in the first place—to yet a ‘third level’ of air carrier. This was the beginning of the practice of ‘code share’ between a large carrier and a commuter, using the larger airline’s name, which is common today.
The Allegheny Commuter concept required that Allegheny select ‘competent operators’ to perform the service and that all flights would benefit from the full spectrum of Allegheny’s standard operations. Two pilots were required on all Commuter flights, and aircraft had to be equipped with “all modern avionics equipment, including automatic pilot, radar transponders and weather radar.” Insurance coverage for passengers was identical to Allegheny’s, and reservations, baggage transfers, and all other aspects of travel were handled by Allegheny personnel just as mainline flights were.
In general, more frequent and conveniently timed schedules were offered to the customers in the smaller cities, and flights were timed to connect with Allegheny’s mainline schedules at hub airports. In the case of Hagerstown, passengers were transported to Baltimore’s Friendship Airport (now BWI), and, later, to Washington National (DCA).
The Hagerstown experiment was the first of the company’s Allegheny Commuter operations, and it quickly showed positive results. In short order, Allegheny began to petition the CAB for permission to extend the concept to other small stations. The CAB’s incentive for approving the transfers was the possibility of reducing or eliminating subsidies as traffic increased with improved service.
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THE FIRST MERGER
On March 1, 1968, Allegheny spread its wings south to Nashville and Memphis. But this expansion beyond its traditional service area was overshadowed by Allegheny’s next big step, the acquisition of Lake Central Airlines (Airways, Aug., Sep. and Oct. 2013), the local service carrier operating in the territory immediately adjacent and generally to the west of Allegheny’s system.
The shakeout of the Locals had begun the previous year with the merger of Frontier Airlines and Central Airlines, from which Frontier had emerged as the surviving carrier. Central (Airways, Sep. and Oct. 2014) was the first of the 13 Locals, permanently certificated back in 1955, to disappear. Out west, in 1968, a three-way merger of local service carriers Bonanza, Pacific, and West Coast Airlines, forming Air West, reduced the count even further.
As for Lake Central, that carrier had struggled for a couple of years with a new aircraft type, the French-built Nord 262, which the airline had banked on to be the elusive Douglas DC-3 replacement. After the Nords were temporarily grounded to fix a troubling engine problem, Lake Central suffered a devastating Convair 580 crash, which was not its fault, but hurt its reputation. The merger of Lake Central into Allegheny, which became effective July 1, 1968, took Allegheny as far west as Chicago and St. Louis, bringing the carrier’s service to more than 100 cities in 17 states, the District of Columbia, and Ontario.
Once Allegheny absorbed Lake Central, the airline’s marketing department put special effort into improving the repute of the French-built Nord 262s that it had inherited through the merger. Painting them in a purple and gold livery replete with a fleur de lis on the tail, Allegheny gave the individual aircraft female French names: Claudette d’Allegheny, Nicole d’Allegheny, Yvonne d’Allegheny, etc. The interiors carried a Paris street scene painted on the forward bulkhead. Flight attendants assigned to work the Nords wore split miniskirts, black net stockings, striped jerseys and ‘jaunty berets’. They served wine and cheese snacks to evoke a French theme, which must have presented a bewildering sight to customers boarding in Kalamazoo and Terre Haute.
The positive spirit of expansion and growth was dampened by tragedy with the freakish occurrence of two fatal accidents at the same airport in less than two weeks. On Christmas Eve 1968, an Allegheny Convair 580, operating as flight 736, crashed on approach to the Bradford Regional Airport, in northwestern Pennsylvania, during an evening snow shower, killing 20 of the 47 aboard. Thirteen days later, on January 6, 1969, another Allegheny Convair 580, operating as flight 737, crashed under the same conditions at the same time of day on approach to Bradford. Eleven people were killed in that accident. Both aircraft were on approach to the same runway but from different directions. Both struck treetops on descent.
After acquiring Lake Central, Allegheny added more non-stop and direct services between the points formerly served by the two separate carriers. The new decade ahead offered the prospect of more growth and opportunity for Allegheny—but before the ‘60s were over, the company would suffer one more tragic accident.
On September 9, 1969, a DC-9-31, operating as flight 853 from Boston to St. Louis via Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis, was involved in a mid-air collision with a Piper Cherokee being operated by a student pilot while on approach for landing at Indianapolis. All 82 aboard the Allegheny DC-9 perished, as did the pilot of the private aircraft.
THE SEVENTIES AND A SECOND MERGER
In 1970, in a move aimed at adding more capacity to heavily traveled routes, and for use on long-haul flights, Allegheny added two Boeing 727-200s to its fleet. It initially deployed the tri-jets on Pittsburgh-Philadelphia-Boston services, but sold them the following year, deciding to keep a standardized turbojet fleet of Douglas DC-9s, which did not require the services of a flight engineer in the cockpit.
As the era of the Locals was transitioning into the age of the regional airlines, Allegheny found itself growing larger once again with the acquisition of yet another of its local service neighbors. On April 12, 1972, Allegheny merged with Mohawk Airlines (Airways, Jan/Feb/March 2015) after that carrier had suffered several years of financial setbacks followed by a lengthy pilot strike.
On May 31, 1972, Allegheny removed Mohawk’s FH-227Bs from service. It had acquired these high-wing turboprops in the merger, but they didn’t fit into the company’s equipment plans. Allegheny had retired its own high-wing F-27J ‘Vistaliners’ in 1969. The company retained Mohawk’s British-built BAC 111 jetliners and supplemented that fleet with more One-Elevens purchased from Braniff.
At the end of 1972, Allegheny’s total revenue for the year amounted to $265 million (more than $1.5 billion in 2015 dollars). Compared with 1967, back before the Lake Central and Mohawk acquisitions, when Allegheny’s operating revenue for the year totaled $52 million, the amount of money coming into the company’s coffers on an annual basis had increased more than 400%.
As of December 31, 1972, Allegheny was operating a fleet of 102 aircraft: 31 Douglas DC-9-31s, 31 BAC-111s, and 40 Convair 580s.
With the Allegheny-Mohawk merger, the ranks of the 13 Locals were reduced to eight regional carriers. They all still served small and medium-sized cities, but each was now flying jets and relying on the Civil Aeronautics Board to give them the more liberal and expanded route authority that would help them put their expensive new airliners to the best use.
In publicity material, Allegheny began referring to itself as the Allegheny Air System. With the acquisition of Mohawk, Allegheny added New York’s Kennedy Airport as a station in addition to its already established service at La Guardia and Newark. Mohawk’s space at JFK was in Terminal 1, also known as the Eastern Air Lines Terminal. Allegheny entered into a marketing agreement with Pan American Airways: Allegheny would feed passengers traveling to Europe and the Caribbean to Pan Am at JFK, and Pan Am would promote Allegheny for connecting travel within the United States at its overseas stations. To help facilitate this arrangement, Allegheny moved its Kennedy Airport operations from the Eastern Air Lines Terminal to Pan Am’s Worldport.
By 1973, the Allegheny Commuter program was a tale of success. Hagerstown, Maryland, the first Allegheny Commuter station, handled 7,000 passengers in 1966, the last full year of Allegheny mainline service there before operations were turned over to Henson Aviation. In 1972, Henson, as an Allegheny Commuter carrier, served 21,000 Hagerstown passengers. Atlantic City, New Jersey’s numbers were even more impressive: Allegheny Commuter traffic tripled there in three years, from 26,000 passengers in 1969 to 78,000 in 1972. By March 1, 1973, 21 of the company’s certificated airports were served exclusively by Allegheny Commuter flights operated by 12 third-level carriers.
In 1975, Leslie O. Barnes turned over the reins of Allegheny Airlines— the company he had built from a struggling carrier operating DC-3s across the Mid-Atlantic States into America’s sixth-largest passenger-carrying airline—to Edwin I. Colodny.
The company introduced a new livery featuring a red stripe that ended in variegated shades of red on the tail of the aircraft. The color scheme first appeared on Allegheny’s factory-fresh, stretched Douglas DC-9-50s, delivered in late 1975. The -50s would remain in the airline’s fleet only until 1978.
Also in 1975, Allegheny brought back some of the old Nord 262s—this time fitted with Pratt & Whitney Canada P6 engines and rechristened Mohawk 298s—for flights into some of the company’s smaller stations under the designation ‘Metro Express’. The airline withdrew the N 262/M 298s from mainline service again three years later.
In 1978, Allegheny retired the Convair 580s, the backbone of the fleet in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, as the prospect of airline deregulation became an increasingly imminent reality.
President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act into law on October 24, 1978— relegating the Civil Aeronautics Board, which had created, nourished, and regulated the local service airlines, including Allegheny, to a slow death.
Allegheny’s management was ready for deregulation with a fleet of pure jets that included DC-9s, BAC-111s, and once again, Boeing 727s. The airline was ready to expand under the relaxed rules of a deregulated environment and finally take its earned place among the nation’s major carriers.
Of course, for many airlines the new blue skies of unhampered expansion quickly gave way to turbulence. But Allegheny managed to survive the turmoil of airline deregulation. Colodny’s management team changed the name of the company to US Air in October 1979. And that is where our story ends.
As a footnote, US Air went on to acquire yet another of its Local Service brethren, Piedmont Airlines, in the 1980s. Additionally, the purchase of PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines) kept US Air expanding.
The company was rebranded US Airways in the 1990s. The Local Service airline that had started out by picking up air mail pouches in the Appalachian Mountains was now flying passengers to Europe. After ups and downs, including visits to bankruptcy court, US Airways merged with America West Airlines in 2006. The surviving company retained the US Airways name.
The airline was the last direct descendent of the 13 permanently-certificated Local Service Carriers still operating—until it, too, succumbed to merger with American Airlines in 2013.