MIAMI — In the early 1990s, the largest tenant at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) was Continental Airlines, and it continues to be the largest carrier there today as United Airlines. EWR is one of the three major airports serving the New York City area and has the distinction of being the first major airport in the U.S., opening 86 years ago.
Travel with us back to March 1993 to spot some aircraft from Continental, which was emerging from a second bankruptcy at the time, and other airlines at EWR. We will also look at some of the other domestic and foreign carriers serving Newark at the time. Finally, we will jump six years forward to 1999 to see a very healthy and successful Continental at Newark.
The 1980s were a turbulent decade for Continental Airlines. Texas Air Corporation, under the leadership of Frank Lorenzo, acquired Continental in 1981. Most of the workforce saw Lorenzo as fiercely anti-union, and he took the airline into bankruptcy protection in September 1983, after failing to negotiate to negotiate lower pay rates with the unions. This allowed the company to force new labor agreements on employees, which resulted in a more competitive airline, but at the cost of workforce morale.
In June 1986, Continental emerged from bankruptcy, and a year later in 1987, the airline merged with PeoplExpress, which had been a mainstay in Newark since 1981, and New York Air. This transformed Continental into the third-largest carrier in the U.S. However, in the late 1980s, Texas Air also bought struggling Eastern Airlines, and Lorenzo dedicated most of his time to labor issues with Eastern.
Continental faced the burden of having acquired two airlines (really three taking into account PeopleExpress bought Frontier Airlines two years before the Continental takeover), plus the surge in fuel prices after the 1991 Gulf War. Moreover, these acquisitions left Continental with various types of aircraft in its fleet. Lorenzo retired at the end of 1990, and Continental entered a second bankruptcy. In early 1991, Continental unveiled the “globe” livery that lives to this day as United and emerged from bankruptcy in 1993, after other companies, including Air Canada, invested $450 million in the carrier. We will get back to Continental’s story.
During a visit to Newark in 1993, I took some pictures of some of the other airlines that operated there. Among the foreign carriers, Air France provided non-stop Boeing 747-200 service from Paris-Charles de Gaulle. Today, this flight is handled by Delta, which has had a very close relationship with Air France since merging with Northwest Airlines in 2010. Furthermore, Air France and Delta are two of the four founding members of the Sky Team alliance.
Scandinavian Airlines in 1993 served the three Scandinavian capitals (Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm) from Newark using Boeing 767-300s, and today these routes are operated by either Airbus A330s or A340s. Portugal’s TAP used an Airbus A310 from its Lisbon hub in 1993, and today this flight continues using an A330. One transatlantic flight I took from Newark as a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-200 to London’s Gatwick Airport. These days, Virgin uses A330s and A340s to serve London’s larger Heathrow Airport from Newark.
As I have mentioned in other flashback pieces, U.S. airlines, especially before the September 11 terrorist attacks, had different fleet utilization, such as using widebody jets for relatively short domestic routes. Twenty years ago, jet fuel prices were low and high load factors had less importance, compared to today.
One domestic widebody I photographed at Newark in 1993 was an American Airlines Airbus A300 originating from Miami. An interesting tidbit about this aircraft was that American was unable to adopt its classic polished metal scheme on the entire aircraft since some its components, especially in the tail and aft section, were made from composite materials, instead of aluminum. American eventually polished the fuselage, but had to maintain a gray color on the tail and rear fuselage.
Getting back to the Continental story, after emerging from its second bankruptcy in 1993, the carrier experienced a historic revival. In 1994, former Boeing executive Gordon Bethune became COO, and was elected CEO in 1996. Five years later, he authored his aptly titled book “From Worst to First,” which chronicled the company’s stunning turnaround under his leadership. Continental went from consistent bottom rankings across most airline rating categories to being one of the best.
For example, for six consecutive years, Fortune Magazine named Continental among the “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” and “Number One Most Admired Global Airline” from 2004 to 2008. Moreover, in the late 1990s, Bethune undertook an aggressive fleet modernization plan, in which the airline became an all-Boeing operator with orders for 737-700/800/900s, 757-200s, 767-200ER/400ERs, and 777-200ERs.
By the early 2000s, Continental had the youngest fleet in the U.S. In addition, it acquired ExpressJet Airlines, which it held until 2002. The regional carrier provided jet service as Continental Express using Embraer 135 and 145 aircraft. Continental also operated ATR-42/72 turboprops, using the Continental Express label, out of Newark to serve smaller regional airports.
I was working in Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s, and had a few opportunities to fly to and from Newark. I was not only impressed by the new fleet of aircraft, but also by the friendliness and excellent costumer service of the crews. Memorable flights included brand new 777-200ERs from Newark to Gatwick and to Rome, as well as connecting to Reagan National Airport on new Boeing 737-700s or Embraer 145 regional jets. I also experienced Continental’s completely revamped international business class, “Business First,” aboard a recently delivered Boeing 757-200 on a flight to Bogota. I even got to say goodbye to the DC-10, which was being replaced by the new Boeings, from Newark to Madrid on one of its last flights. As we know, today Continental is part of a much larger United Airlines, but its positive transformation during the 1990s brings back good memories of some very enjoyable flights.