In the summer of 1936, American businessmen Frank Hulse and Ike Jones bought a controlling interest in Southern Airways of Georgia flight school. In the early 1940s, they applied for a license to operate a local air service in eight southeastern states. Based at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, Georgia.
With 39 people on the payroll, Southern Airways first flight took off from Atlanta on June 10, 1949, headed for Memphis with stops in Gadsden, Birmingham, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Columbus, Mississippi. By 1955 Southern’s routes went as far north as Memphis, Tennessee, and as far south as New Orleans, Louisiana.
Southern Airways began life flying Douglas DC-3s
Like other regional carriers, Southern Airways was subsidized by the government. On many routes, it provided what was deemed an essential service and would have lost money but for the subsidies. Like many local airlines in the late 1940s and early 1950s Southern Airlines had a fleet of WWII Douglas DC-3s. In 1961 Southern Airways began replacing the older planes with second-hand Martin 4-0-4s from Eastern Air Lines.
The advantage of the Martins was that they had a pressurized cabin and rear fold-away stairs. In 1967, the Martins were joined by Southern Airways’ first jets, 65-75 passenger Douglas DC-9s followed by larger DC-9-30s in 1969.
Southern Airways was the last American airline to fly piston-powered planes
Calling itself the “Route of the Aristocrats” and with the slogan “Nobody’s Second Class on Southern,” by 1975, the airline had expanded with flights to St. Louis, Detroit, Ft. Lauderdale, and Grand Cayman in the Caribbean, the airline’s only ever international destination. When the last scheduled Martin flight took off from Atlanta to Gadsden, Alabama, in April 1978, Southern Airways was the only airline in the United States still flying with piston-powered aircraft.
Southern’s first 65–75-passenger Douglas DC-9 series 10s arrived in 1967, followed by 85–95-passenger McDonnell Douglas DC-9 series 30s in 1969. In its last year as an independent airline in 1978, Southern Airways flew to 50 cities in 17 states and the Cayman Islands. It had 4,500 employees and significant hubs at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta and Memphis International Airport (MEM) in Tennessee.
Southern Airways merged to become Republic Airlines
On July 1, 1979, Southern Airways merged with North Central Airlines to form Republic Airlines. What was unique about the merger was that neither airline’s route maps overlapped the other. Now headquartered in the twin cities of Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Republic Airlines purchased Hughes Airwest in 1980 to give itself a presence in the western United States.
In 1985 during its last year of operations, Republic Airlines was flying to more than 200 cities with a fleet of DC-9s, Boeing 727s and 757s and Convair 580s.
On October 1, 1985, Northwest Airlines completed the acquisition of Republic Airlines and became the dominant carrier at the following three airports:
- Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP)
- Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW)
- Memphis International Airport (MEM)
Following a consolidation of the airline industry in the 2000s, Northwest Airlines was merged into Delta Air Lines, making the Atlanta-based carrier the largest airline in the world for a brief period. On December 9, 2013, American Airlines purchased US Airways to become the world’s largest airline.