MGM Grand Air: What Was The Airline And What Happened To It?

Before we get into MGM Grand Air and what became of it, you must first understand how the idea was born and the man who created it. Born to Armenian immigrants in Fresno, California, on June 6, 1917, Kirk Kerkorian left school at a young age taking odd jobs to help his family get by.

MGM Grand Air had three Boeing 727 planes. Photo: Torsten Maiwald via Wikimedia

He was also a promising lightweight boxer but left the ring to take flying lessons. During World War Two, Kerkorian ferried Canadian-built de Havilland Mosquitos over the North Atlantic to Scotland for the British Royal Air Force. Once the war was over, he used his aircraft knowledge to buy surplus military planes, refurbish them and sell them on for a profit.

Kerkorian flew gamblers to Vegas

In 1947 Kerkorian had enough money to purchase an air-charter service called Trans International Airlines that flew gamblers from around the world to Las Vegas. By the 1960s, Kerkorian had amassed enough money to buy land on the Las Vegas strip. After purchasing the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie studio in 1969, He built the MGM Grand Casino, the largest hotel globally, with more than 2,000 rooms.

Kirk Kerkorian bought Trans International Airlines to bring gamblers to Las Vegas. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia

Now a billionaire and already experienced in the aviation industry, Kerkorian decided to create a charter airline. The sole purpose of MGM Grand Air would be the transportation of celebrities and wealthy passengers between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). He would also use MGM Grand Air to bring high-end gamblers to his Las Vegas casinos.

MGM Grand Air had six planes

Tiny but opulent, MGM Grand Air and its distinctive lion head logo was founded in 1987 and operated three Boeing 727s and three Douglas DC-8s. Regarding ticket prices, passengers paid $1,400 to fly from Los Angeles to New York, $1,000 to fly between Los Vegas and New York, and $180 to fly between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. At the time, MGM Grand Air said that its ticket prices were not that much higher than first class fares on other airlines but that the service was far superior.

No more than 33 passengers

According to an MGM corporate video that you can see below, MGM air promised that each flight would never have more than 33 passengers and that there would be five flight attendants onboard to look after them. Each aircraft featured contoured swivel seats, private meeting rooms, and gourmet food served on fine china. MGM Grand Air also featured a selection of six first-run movies to watch.

And while it might seem like a thousand years ago to young people today, personal entertainment comprised a VCR machine and television. MGM Grand Air also offered passengers the ability to make air to ground telephone calls, a feature that hardly seems unique today.

Hollywood stars flew on MGM

Like most things in the 1980s, the style was accentuated with plenty of gold plating and Versace-like fabrics. Even the toilets on MGM Grand Air aircraft looked like they were something out of the hit television show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

In a 1989 promotional video, you can hear a company executive saying:

“The customer looks upon our service as if it were their own private corporate jet, and as such, enjoys and expects the stress-free, hassle-free environment.”

In its heyday, MGM Grand Air was Hollywood’s favorite way to fly between the west and east coast and provided a home away from home for frequent flyers like Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, and Julia Roberts.

MGM Grand
The MGM Grand was once the largest hotel in the world. Photo: Mikano via Wikipedia

Despite its A-list clientele, MGM Grand Air operated many flights with fewer passengers onboard than crew members. Even a six-grade student can do the maths and tell you that the figures did not add up.

Other airlines in the 1980s were slashing costs, providing fewer thrills, and offering inexpensive tickets to survive while MGM Grand Air was trying to appeal to a select few. For these social elites, the airfare cost was never an issue and led to them flying in private jets.

Kirk Kerkorian
Kirk Kerkorian was a national hero in Armenia and at one time was worth 16 billion dollars. Photo: Armenak Margarian via Wikimedia

While MGM Grand Air might have been appealing to a Las Vegas magnate like Kerkorian, it never made a profit. In late 1992 MGM Grand Air suspended its scheduled service between LAX-JFK and LAX-LAS, attributing its losses to the recession and intense competition from other airlines.

MGM becomes Champion Air

By 1994 business jets were in the ascendency and were now the preferred choice of celebrities and business leaders. MGM Grand Air saw the writing on the wall and decided to sell its assets to a small tour operator in Minnesota called “Front Page Tours.”

Dedicated to providing transportation to sports teams and their fans Front Page Tours changed its name to Champion Air. Focused on a fleet of just Boeing 727s, Champion Air survived until 2008.

Champion Air Boeing 727-2S7 N682CA
Champion Air transported sports teams and their fans. Photo: Cubbie_n_Vegas via Wikimedia

In a company statement released on March 31, 2008, Champion Air President and CEO Lee Steele announced that the company would cease all flight operations as of May 31, 2008.

He cited high fuel costs and the inefficiency of their aging Boeing 727 fleet as some of the primary reasons behind the shutdown.

“Our business model is no longer viable in a world of $110 oil, a struggling economy, and a rapidly changing demand for our services,” Steele said in the statement.

Trump Air

MGM Grand Air was not the only airline owned by a billionaire in the 1980s and 1990s, with New York property tycoon Donald Trump getting into the business by purchasing Eastern Shuttle for $365 million. Unlike MGM Grand Air, Trump did not use Trump Air to ferry passengers to his Atlantic City casinos but targeted business travelers on quick flights between New York, Boston, and Washington.

In its first 18 months, Trump Air had racked up $125 million in debt. During the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent war against Sadam Hussain, oil prices rocketed, leading the United States on the brink of recession.

Trump Air Shuttle
Trump Air flew between New York, Boston, and Washington DC. Photo: Felix Goetting via Wikimedia

Trump’s bankers advised him that his airline was not financially viable, and the man who would later become President of the United States sold the assets to another airline, and just as MGM Grand Air walked away.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, MGM Grand Air was something special and may never again be recreated, with the closest thing we have today being Emirates or perhaps Taiwan’s Starlux Airlines.

Did you ever fly on MGM Grand Air? If so, please tell us what it was like in the comments.