What If TWA Was Still Operating Today?

Trans World Airlines was a major American carrier that flew from the 1930s until the turn of the century. Today, the so-called ‘big three’ airlines dominate American commercial aviation. This group consists of American, Delta, and United. But how might the airline industry have looked in the US had TWA not ceased to operate in 2001?

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Trans World Airlines was originally named Transcontinental & Western Air. Photo: Getty Images

The history of TWA

Initially founded as Transcontinental & Western Air in July 1930, TWA was first known for operating its eponymous transcontinental route. Using Ford Trimotor aircraft, the airline flew between New York City and Los Angeles. Stops along this corridor included St. Louis and Kansas City. Under the management of Howard Hughes, the airline expanded into Europe and Asia after the Second World War.

In the latter half of the 20th century, TWA was involved in several high-profile incidents. These included two deadly mid-air collisions in 1956 and 1960, both of which involved examples of the airline’s Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation. Between 1969 and 1986, six of TWA’s aircraft were the targets of terrorist incidents. Two aircraft were bombed, with the other four being hijacked.

Tail of Lockheed 749 Constellation, Wroughton, Wiltshire, 1984.
The Lockheed Constellation was one of TWA’s most aesthetically striking aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

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The airline’s worst disaster was TWA flight 800, in July 1996. This catastrophe involved a TWA Boeing 747-100 on a flight from New York JFK to Rome via Paris. Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft, N93119, exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. All 230 passengers and crew perished in the disaster. The NTSB deemed the most likely cause to be a center-fuel-tank explosion, triggered by exposed wiring.

Less than five years later, TWA filed for bankruptcy for the third time. American Airlines consequently acquired the carrier, although, after 9/11, it laid off numerous former TWA employees. At the time of its acquisition by American, TWA’s fleet consisted of 192 aircraft.

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The Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ has revolutionized twin-engine long-haul operations. Perhaps TWA would have also ended up operating the type. Photo: Getty Images

Loyal to American aircraft

These 192 aircraft were all from American manufacturers. In 2001, TWA was operating the Boeing 717, 757, and 767 (two variants), as well as the McDonnell Douglas MD-81, -82, and -83. Looking at the airliner market today, one can consider what aircraft a 21st century TWA might have operated, knowing its penchant for American designs.

A logical progression from the Boeing 767 for TWA might have been the American manufacturer’s next-generation 787 Dreamliner aircraft. As for the airline’s narrowbodies, maybe TWA would have been another example on the long list of American carriers to have ordered the infamous Boeing 737 MAX.

That said, with 70 Airbus planes on order, TWA did appear to be bucking its all-American trend at the time of its acquisition. These orders were for 50 Airbus A318 and 20 Airbus A330 aircraft. Were TWA still operating in 2021, and had this trend continued, perhaps we would see Airbus A220 and A330neo aircraft in its famous red stripe livery.

TWA Trans World Airlines Lockheed L1011 Tristar Los Angeles 1992
American Airlines acquired TWA in 2001. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

Where would TWA fly today?

At the time of TWA’s acquisition, it was operating an extensive route network spanning multiple continents. It served destinations across Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. It would have undoubtedly faced heavy competition at airports such as London Heathrow and Frankfurt. However, it may have found a place in the market for ‘long thin’ transatlantic routes. For example, TWA flew to Hamburg in northern Germany, where the only current long-haul routes exclusively serve Middle Eastern destinations.

On the whole, it is fascinating to consider whether TWA would have found a place in today’s airline market, and what exact role it would have ended up playing. Nonetheless, a handful of its former aircraft remain in service, so its legacy has not disappeared just yet.

Did you ever fly with TWA? How do you think they would fare in today’s airline industry? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.