Trans World Airlines, also known as TWA, was a major American airline for most of the twentieth century.

While TWA eventually declared bankruptcy and was purchased by United Airlines in 2001, the TWA brand continued operating until 2003.

Today, TWA is remembered for being an early pioneer of air travel in the United States.

TWA failed because the airline couldn’t effectively compete with new competitors after the airline deregulation act of 1978.

The company also suffered from repeated instances of financial mismanagement, which pushed the airline into multiple financial reorganizations.

TWA were also forced to sell their lucrative London routes and were involved in several accidents. 

What Happened to TWA Airlines? (A Timeline)

  • 1930: Trans World Airlines forms from the merger of multiple smaller airlines.
  • 1932: Trans World Airlines signs a contract with Douglas aircraft for the Douglas Commercial Model 1(DC-1). 
  • 1933:TWA receives the world’s first and only Douglas DC-1.
  • 1940: TWA offers the world’s first in-flight audio entertainment via commercial radio programs.
  • 1944: TWA flies the Lockheed constellation from California to Washington, D.C. 
  • 1946: TWA begins transatlantic flights with the Lockheed Constellation.
  • 1953: TWA flies the first non-stop eastbound flights.
  • 1959: TWA flies a route from San Francisco to New York with Boeing 707-131. 
  • 1961: TWA files $115 million in damages against the Hughes Tool Company.
  • 1965: Howard Hughes of the Hughes Tool Company liquidates his TWA shareholdings, netting $546.5 million. 
  • 1970: TWA becomes the first airline to offer Boeing 747 flights. 
  • 1985: TWA launches a transatlantic service with the Boeing 767. 
  • 1988: TWA goes private under Carl Icahn’s proposal. Privatization removes $610.3 million from TWA, of which $469 million went to Icahn, increasing TWA’s debt by $539.7 million. 
  • 1991: Carl Icahn sells several of TWA’s London routes to American Airlines for $445 million. 
  • 1992: TWA files a petition for reorganization. 
  • 1993: TWA completes reorganization. 
  • 1995: TWA files for bankruptcy protection and completes a second financial reorganization. 
  • 2001: TWA files for bankruptcy protection for a third time and is sold to American Airlines. 
  • 2003: TWA ceases its airline operations as an LLC owned by American Airlines. 

2 Reasons Why TWA Failed

1. The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act

The 1978 Deregulation Act increased competition in the airline industry, which TWA couldn’t adjust to. 

2. Financial Mismanagement

TWA was financially mismanaged.

Carl Icahn took control of TWA in 1985, took the airline private in 1988, and personally received $469 million (equal to $1.01 billion in 2020).

The airline would then go bankrupt in 1995. 

In 1991, Icahn sold the airline’s valuable London routes to American Airlines for $445 million, which was considered a loss of a valuable asset by many analysts.

The airline would later face issues because of mechanics unions, who resisted the closure of unnecessary maintenance bases, costing the airline more money. 

Lastly, European labor laws also prevented TWA from downsizing its workforce in Europe when it was no longer needed. 

What Planes Did TWA Fly?

TWA flew the following planes at the time of its retirement:

  1. Boeing 717
  2. Boeing 757 
  3. Boeing 767 
  4. McDonald Douglas MD81
  5. McDonald Douglas MD82
  6. McDonald Douglas MD83

Before retirement, TWA also flew these planes: 

  1. Boeing 747 
  2. Convair 800
  3. McDonald Douglas DC-9

How Many Crashes Did TWA Have?

TWA has been involved in 22 fatal crashes, 38 non-fatal crashes, and 26 hijackings since 1946.

TWA’s worst crash was in 1996 when a Boeing 747 traveling to Paris exploded over the Atlantic coast of Long Island, causing 230 fatalities.

The explosion is believed to have been caused by a center-fuel explosion that was sparked by exposed wiring. 

The Last TWA Flight Was in 2001

TWA flew its last flight on December 1, 2001, which was completed by a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 from Kansas City to St. Louis. 

There are also no TWA planes still in operation today.

Trans World Airline’s last operating planes, the Boeing 757-200 and Boeing 767-300, were retired due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What Happened to Pan Am?

Many people interested in knowing what happened to TWA, are also interested in knowing what happened to Pan Am, which was another major and arguably more famous U.S. airline.

Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991 and was sold to United Airlines.

The biggest problem for Pan Am was their rising operating costs due to international oil embargoes. 

Pan Am also suffered similar problems as TWA, including the inability to compete with the newer airlines after the 1976 airline deregulation act. 

In conclusion:

  • TWA was a major twentieth-century American airline. Like most other airlines at the time, it was initially a merger of multiple smaller airlines.
  • TWA initially performed well. They were the first airline to launch multiple new Boeing planes, and they had a good reputation until the 70s.
  • The first step to TWA’s downfall was the 1976 airline deregulation act, which opened the way for new competitors. TWA couldn’t compete against the smaller, more efficient new airlines.
  • Further complicating matters was the company’s history of financial mismanagement. TWA was financially reorganized twice, sold its lucrative London routes, and was eventually privatized.
  • In the end, TWA were bought by American Airlines.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).