The history of TWA: The ups & downs of one of America’s fallen giants, Trans World Airlines

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TWA history The ups and downs of Trans World Airlines

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Trans World Airlines, better known as TWA, was one of the major United States air carriers that moved millions of people through the sky to destinations around the globe.

Along with American Airlines, Delta, Pan Am and United, it and was one of the big players during the “golden age of flight” — a time of huge growth and technological development between World War I and World War II.

TWA’s history, in fact, started back in the 1920s, and flew high for decades — right through the end of the century.

Here’s a look at the story — the ups, the downs, and the in-betweens — of one of America’s great former airlines, and see how exciting flying used to be.

The history of TWA, looking back from the sixties

TWA circles globe with new service (1969)

Adapted from an article in the Indianapolis Star (Indiana) August 3, 1969

Trans World Airlines’ history dates back to 1925, when the predecessor carrier Western Air Express was organized.

WAE started operations in 1926 between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Standard Air Lines and Maddux Air Lines, formed in Los Angeles at about the same time, also figured in the establishment of TWA.

The fourth “parent” was Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) which, on July 7, 1929, made history by launching air-rail transcontinental service over a route laid out by Charles A Lindbergh. Passengers flew Ford Trimotors by day, and rode the railroad by night. Trip time: 48 hours.

Photo of Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) plane courtesy Smithsonian NASM
Photo of Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) plane courtesy Smithsonian NASM

Soon after, a series of mergers involving parts of Western Air, Standard and TAT-Maddux led to Transcontinental & Western Air, Inc. (TWA), and on Oct. 25, 1930, the company inaugurated the nation’s first all-air transcontinental service, with an overnight stop at Kansas City. Total trip time: 36 hours.

Within two years, TWA had mastered night flying, eliminated the stopover, and cut transcontinental time to 24 hours.

In 1933, TWA set design specifications that led to the famous DC-3 series, and reduction of coast-to-coast flying time to about 16 hours.

TWA’s high-altitude weather research resulted, in 1940, in the production of the Boeing Stratoliner, the first transport with cabin pressurization. Coast-to-coast time was cut to 14 hours. 

With its fleet of five “Strats” as the backbone, TWA was the only U.S. domestic airline with experience in operating four-engine land planes, when the United States entered World War II.

During the war, TWA’s Intercontinental Division, under the Air Transport Command, made nearly 10,000 Atlantic crossings, carrying materiel, diplomats, military leaders, troops, the sick and wounded.

DON’T MISS: See 50 real-life Rosie the Riveters & other women war workers from WWII

From Flying Magazine (May 1945)
From Flying Magazine (May 1945)

On June 10, 1944, TWA became the first U.S. airline to apply for round-the-world authority. It was authorized on July 5, 1945, to operate across the Atlantic, more than halfway around the world.

On February 5, 1946, TWA inaugurated its international routes with the first commercial link between the United States and Paris.

Steadily, TWA pushed its network around the globe. In 1953, it was operating to Ceylon, in 1958 to Thailand, and in 1966 to Hong Kong.

By 1967, TWA had inaugurated Service to the three African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. 

In the Transpacific Route Investigation initiated in 1966, TWA originally was awarded a Pacific route Dec. 19, 1968, by President Johnson.

On Feb. 11, 1969, President Nixon “vacated” Johnson’s awards. Mr. Nixon then issued “revised” awards April 11, 1969, which slightly modified TWA’s award.

The CAB certified TWA’s transpacific route April 24, 1969. TWA thus became the world’s ninth airline operating around the world.

First to switch to all pure-jet equipment on U.S. domestic (1967) as well as on international routes (1961), TWA today operates 225 jets.

This November, TWA will take delivery of its first Boeing 747, and in late 1971, TWA will inaugurate service with its first Lockheed Tri-Star.

The airline also has placed orders for the British-French Concorde supersonic livery position for the US transport, and holds first debuilt SST. 

TWA airlines in flight (1953)

The start of Trans-Pacific service by Trans World Airlines last Friday brought TWA full circle around the globe, fulfilling a quarter-century quest by the airline to provide round-the-world service.

The new route, via Hawaii, Guam, Okinawa and Taiwan, closes the Pacific gap between California and Hong Kong on TWA’s worldwide system.

The four Pacific points boost to 67 the number of major centers in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia served by TWA, including 40 US. cities. It raises TWA’s total unduplicated route miles by 17.5 percent to 59,424 miles.


Ginger Rogers for TWA airlines: A bridge across the continent (1936)

Ginger Rogers, RKO star — Miss Rogers says: “On TWA, you travel with the sort of people you enjoy meeting. And you always reach your destination clean, fresh and rested. To me, TWA seems like a great bridge across the continent.”

TWA has made California a suburb of New York — or the other way around. As for Chicago and New York, they have become practically “twin cities.”

On the big, new TWA Douglas Skyliners, you can read or write or work or talk as comfortably as you do in your own home or office.

At night, those big, luxurious lounge chairs become beds that let you enjoy a restful night’s sleep. No wonder TWA is known as the Hollywood way to travel.

“Over every mile of the TWA coast-to-coast route, the big Douglas Skyliners that we pilot are within 5 to 10 minutes of a regularly-maintained flying field.” – Captain E A Bellande, 2,184,000 flying miles

The short, fast way coast-to-coast

Nothing but Douglas Skyliners used on all TWA flights. Short route and fast service between New York and California. Non-stop service from Chicago to New York. Low reduced fares in effect between most points. Contact your local TWA office for complete travel information.

Travel TWA — The Lindbergh line — Transcontinental & Western Air, Inc.

ALSO SEE: Knute Rockne’s TWA airplane crashes – The football legend among the 8 killed (1931)


Who says, “It’s a man’s world”? (1950s)

Not the woman who flies TWA. For since she’s discovered the swiftness of TWA Constellation flight, her whole outlook has changed.

Her horizons are broader… she’s found new freedom and greater opportunity to awe and enjoy. Not only that, she can travel alone without a worry. In the world, enjoying service that befits a queen.

Meals are served right at her want. Friendly TWA hostesses are always on hand to help smooth her way. Yes, women of all ages are going more places in the world today because of world-proved TWA.

TWA It's a man's world - planes in the 1950s


Dave Chasen: The best way is by TWA (1950s)

Sirloin of beef… broiled to your order in flight.

Your Ambassador flight hums toward the evening sun. Dinner is served — a celebrated event on TWA. You begin with cocktails, you conclude with coffee, a choice of liqueurs, and a satisfied sigh.

But the high point, an airline innovation by TWA chefs and Dave Chasen, is a culinary masterwork — a tender cut of prime sirloin of beef broiled in flight to individual taste. All this, of course, part of a most pleasant and rewarding trip by TWA Ambassador.

Another good reason gourmets say: The best way is by TWA.

ALSO SEE: Look back at the early days of American Airlines – doing what they did best

Beef dinner on TWA plane - in-flight meal from the 1950s


TWA New York abstract poster (1950s)

Vintage US travel poster - New York on TWA


Dad’s favorite chair (1951)

Comfort and complete relaxation! Dad’s found both in his TWA Skyliner seat… and lots more.

He’s found the magic key to covering territory, arriving fresher, and quite often, first. Best of all — and how the family loves this — a Skyliner lets Dad spend most of his evenings where he wants to be most — in his other favorite chair — at home!

Flying TWA airplane - Dad's favorite chair (1951)


Grandma leads a fast life… and loves it! (1951)

No one has to go home to see Grandma today because now she’s going… by Skyliner.

Age simply doesn’t matter. From the moment she settles in her comfortable seat until the family waves hello, Grandma is in good hands. A thoughtful TWA hostess is always nearby, anticipating every need.

And best of all, TWA’s direct routes across the U.S. end any worries about changing planes or transferring baggage. It’s easy and fun traveling TWA — for all ages. Grandmas love it!

1951 TWA planes


It’s a long way from the office — or is it? (1951)

That special “somewhere” you dream about — don’t let earthbound concepts of time and distance block it out of your thoughts.

Instead, let your mind fully grasp the amazing fact of TWA travel today — five-mile-a-minute Skyliner magic that makes even a weekend time enough for days at a faraway spot.

Time it yourself and see how often you can get away from it all… when you put a plane in your planning!

Trans World Airlines for vacations (1951)


Whatever your vacation choice… (1951)

Let TWA take you there.

When your family’s vacation ideas start going in opposite directions. try this. Try putting a plane in your planning — a TWA Skyliner — and watch a world of new ideas open up.

Fly across the U.S. or to nearby Europe… Skyliners do it in hours. Mountains or seashore… there’s time enough for both an one vacation when you leave the way up to TWA.

MORE: A 1950s tour guide to Hawaii: See what the islands looked like before becoming the 50th state

TWA vacations - travel (1951)


To grandmother’s house you go via TWA for Thanksgiving (1951)

Over the rivers and over the woods to grandmother’s house we go…

There, a new road now to an old tradition. It’s the TWA highway home for Thanksgiving. And what a blessing it is to families separated by too many rivers and too many woods … and so many years!

If you’ve let distance and lack of time keep you away too long, traveling this high way. Find out how TWA can make it very near to someone dear — for even an ocean apart is only hours apart by Skyliner.

To grandmother's house you go via TWA for Thanksgiving (1951)


Where on earth could you find such service? (1952)

You feel genuine friendliness when a TWA hostess smiles “hello,” and sense relaxation as soon as you settle in your TWA Constellation seat.

Thoughtful planning shortens your journey. Guest-of-honor attention anticipates your needs, caters to every wish and satisfies your new-found appetite with a meal you’ll talk about for days!

Yes, you’ll like your trip by TWA Constellation. Where on earth could you find such service?

DON’T MISS: See what United Airlines flights in the ’50s were supposed to be like

TWA Airlines service 1952


Service with 13,500 smiles (1952)

It’s in the friendly voice that helps you when you first call TWA… in the warm hospitality that gives you a guest-of-honor feeling on TWA’s luxurious Constellation Skyliner… and in the bright “good-bye” that matches your spirits as you end a swift, relaxing trip.

For TWA’s team of 13,500 men and woven all have your comfort in mind… and a spirit of friendly interest to your travel that extends across the world.

TWA airlines stewardess (1952)


Every day is SUN day… (1952)

… up where TWA skyliners fly.

You’ll really enjoy that high and mighty feeling when your course is charted along TWA’s “fair-weather level.”

For it is grand and glorious, flying up there on the bright side of every cloud… up where the stars seem within touching distance at night.

Here is the perfect setting for a pleasant journey… for fullest enjoyment of alt the comfort, convenience and speed that makes luxury TWA Constellation Service the finest in the skies.

ALSO SEE: The Lockheed Electra was cutting edge airline tech in the ’50s – but then the planes started crashing

TWA with a happy couple flying (1952)

ALSO SEE: The Grand Canyon airplane crash: United & TWA planes collide (1956)


Young man on the way up (1952)

That air of success about so many young businessmen traveling TWA — there’s a good reason for it.

They’ve learned early that success is in the air… that the way to go places in business is to go places for business — fast and often! TWA is made to order for that.

Key cities coast to coast and overseas are linked with the speed and frequency and luxury service that make for successful trips. Mighty comfortable ones, too!

TWA for businessmen (1952)


The greatest air-safety measure on earth (1952)

TWA’s Operation 7, and what it means to you!

Perhaps you never heard of the term before… but TWA’s “Operation 7” is famous in aviation circles because it is one of the most exacting overhauls a modern airliner can get.

It involves every part of the plane, from wing tip to wing tip, nose to tail. It takes six days, 4,500 man-hours, to complete. It is another of the reassuring reasons why… across the US and overseas, you can depend on TWA.

MORE: See what United Airlines flights in the ’50s were supposed to be like

Trans-World propeller plane in maintenance - 1952 (2)

Trans-World propeller plane in maintenance - 1952 (1)


Now! More luxury per mile… more miles per hour! (1955)

Super-G Constellations — Non-stop coast to coast

Largest, most luxurious airliners in the skies today!

Just picture the most luxurious hotel you’ve ever seen flying coast to coast at incredible speed. That will give you some idea of the splendor that awaits you aboard TWA’s great new Super-G Constellations. You’ll stroll through not just one — but four cabins.

And everywhere you look you’ll discover new luxuries… wood-paneled interiors, the widest, roomiest chairs in non-stop transcontinental service, 3 beautifully appointed lavatories, handy baggage racks, adjustable reading lights and scores of other distinctive features.

Even the nose of this new giant of the skyways is unique. Equipped for radar, it can actually “see” weather a hundred miles ahead!

Naturally, TWA’s traditionally superb service and cuisine match the luxurious setting every moment of your brief. swift trip coast to coast.

You’ll linger over each tempting course of a complete deluxe dinner, order your favorite drink whenever you wish, appreciate the extra attentiveness of 2 specially trained TWA hostesses.

SEE MORE: Pretty, thin, young and single? Check out these sexist stewardess job requirements of the ’50s & ’60s

TWA's Super G Constellation aircraft from 1955 (2)

TWA's Super G Constellation aircraft from 1955 (1)


The history of TWA: On time! (1958)

We’re proud of our clock watchers at TWA!

It takes teamwork to send the mighty Jetstreams winging to their destinations all over the world, departing on schedule, arriving on time!

And it takes a big team of clock-watchers to do it — maintenance men, weather analysts, flight dispatchers, operating crews. TWA is proud of them.

You’ll understand why… when, after the smoothest, most luxurious flight you’ve ever had… your TWA plane taxis in on time!

TWA planes are on time (1958)


TWA history: The airline’s First Class Siesta Sleeper seat (1958)

ALSO SEE: Look back at the early days of American Airlines – doing what they did best

TWA airlines siesta sleeper seat (1958)


Color snapshot of a TWA plane boarding (1960s)

TWA plane snapshot from the 1960s


The history of Trans-World Airlines: The 1963 TWA

It’s still the only airline serving 70 major U.S. cities and 15 world centers overseas. The tradition of on-time dependability hasn’t changed… on non-stop flights from New York to Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities here and in Europe.

But new things are happening all the time. These pages show you why it’s fast, easy and fun to go places with TWA.

ALSO SEE: The quick, quiet Douglas DC-9 plane was America’s first short-to-medium range jet

Movies will be shown in Economy Class on TWA overseas jets this year. Seats have audio installations, volume controls. Passengers use lightweight earphones and enjoy the same films shown in First Class.

“Carousel” baggage delivery saves time and trouble. Baggage comes to a revolving stage, waits for the arriving passenger.

Powerful reason to fly TWA — the remarkable DynaFan engines that give TWA StarStream jets faster take-off, faster climb to smooth cruising altitudes… extra reserve power to assure schedule dependability.

Business travelers appreciate the extra comfort of TWA’s Royal Ambassador First Class… featuring roomy 2-2 seating, complimentary beverages, gourmet meals.

Meet one of the nation’s proudest career girls. Before she serves you on TWA, she takes weeks of training in an exact replica of a jet cabin, personality and IQ tests, even courses on passenger psychology.

The new look of TWA airlines 1963 (1)

The new look of TWA airlines 1963 (2)


Steak dinner on TWA airlines (1964)

Take a gourmet restaurant, put it 30,000 feet in the air, move it at 600 mph, and you have TWA Royal Ambassador First Class.

Not just a good meal, but a great one. Course after course of international delicacies. With your favorite cocktail first, of course. Vintage wines and champagne, too.

And a manner of service you’ll appreciate… thoughtful, attentive, thoroughly efficient. In comfortable Jet Coach, it’s not quite as sumptuous, but certainly quite us delicious.

Enjoy the good life next time you’re going places, throughout the U. S. or overseas. 

ALSO SEE: The stunning space-age TWA Terminal at JFK airport as it looked in the ’60s (before it became a hotel)

Vintage 60s TWA airlines stewardess with a steak dinner (1964)


At the office, she takes hundreds of letters… On vacation, she takes three: T-W-A. (1965)

It’s a smart decision, and a very popular one these days. Travelers like TWA’s one-airline convenience to favorite vacation spots throughout the U. S. and Europe. One ticket all the way, no fuss about connecting flights.

They like TWA service, on the ground and en route. A network of new terminals and a tradition of thoughtful attention put more pleasure into every minute of the trip.

And they like the delightful “extra” that only TWA offers: movies by Inflight Motion Pictures, Inc. on most nonstop coast-to-coast and trans-Atlantic flights. Most important, they like to arrive on time. So does TWA. Next trip, holiday or any day, call TWA or your travel agent.

TWA vacations - Airline history (1965)


The airport waiting game and how to beat it. (1968)

1. You win. You came with ticket from your travel agent or TWA. Check bags only. Do not stop at ticket counter. Go directly to No. 3 Boarding lounge. (No ticket? See girl in red sash, No. 2).

2. This is TWA Ground Hostess. She has answers. She can get you to ticket agent quickly. Tell you about flight and gate numbers, the works. Get ticket from ticket agent. He’ll get you to plan on time. Go to No. 3.

3. Boarding lounge. Take seat number. Get on jet. Sit down. Fly.

4. You’ve landed. The spinner dial is an electric carousel. Chances are, your baggage is already on it, playing a waiting game for you.

You have to have a system to beat the airport waiting game. We do. A complete team of ground personnel trained to get you from front door to exit door without a hitch. When you fly at nearly 600 mph on a jet, we can’t afford to slow you down on the ground.

Nobody likes to hang around airports.

ALSO SEE: How (and why) the Boeing 747 jumbo jet made history

TWA helps you beat the airport waiting game 1968 (2)

TWA helps you beat the airport waiting game 1968 (1)


TWA: Our million-dollar bonus. It’s working. (1969)

“That hostess had more patience than me. And they were my kids.”

We found this message on the back of a ballot in the bonus box at Kennedy Airport. And in the past five months, we’ve gotten over half a million other nice comments just like it from passengers all over the world. Which proves something to use about our million-dollar bonus. It’s working.

TWA - Airlines hostess and million dollar bonus (1969)


If you want to get anywhere in this world… start in Los Angeles. (1969)

When the President approved TWA’s new Pacific air routes, it made us a round-the-world airline. With Los Angeles right in the center of that world.

Now you can jump on a TWA jet and cover the whole world without switching airlines.

You can take off west. Across the Pacific to Honolulu, Guam, Okinawa, Taipei, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Colombo, Bombay.

Or go east, to Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, or any of our 17 European, Middle Eastern and African countries.

Or just stay here, and we’ll bring the rest of the world to you. After all, Los Angeles is the city that will soon become the largest city in the world.

The city that’s destined to lead the world in new directions. In art, music, business, sports, leisure, even life-styles in general.

The city which has 142 TWA flights a day coming in and going out.

Los Angeles. The center of the world.

TWA flights and routes from Los Angeles in 1969


TWA Ambassador Service (1970)

TWA Ambassador Service (1970)


The history of TWA:  Sights, sounds and soul of Europe (1973)

TWA to Europe (1973)


TWA: What travel should be (1973)

TWA figures if you like our 747, you’ll love our 1011.

TWA what travel should be (1973)


TWA – Fly around the world (1974)

ALSO SEE: Why Pan Am used to be one of the world’s most legendary airlines

TWA - Fly around the world (1974)

Vintage TWA 747s and L1011s

How the number one airline to Europe became the number one airline to Europe

Vintage TWA 747s and L1011s


TWA – Airline Takeoff Pass (1989)

TWA - Airline Takeoff Pass (1989)


The history of TWA: The crash of Flight 800 (1996)

TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic just minutes after takeoff on July 17, 1996.

The 747 flight from JFK airport to Rome (with a layover in Paris) was carrying 230 people — none of whom survived.

You can find out more about the disaster via Encyclopedia Brittanica and on Wikipedia.

Photo by Ralf Liebhold | Dreamstime.com
Photo by Ralf Liebhold | Dreamstime.com

DON’T MISS THIS: See the stunning space-age TWA Terminal at JFK airport as it looked in the ’60s (before it became a hotel)

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