On 25 January 1959, TWA launched its first jet services using the Boeing 707 between New York Idlewild and San Francisco, in direct competition with American Airlines’ launch of Boeing 707 services between New York Idlewild and Los Angeles.
Howard Hughes had stretched TWA’s finances nearly to the limit to get into jets and, while the arrival of the Jet Age to TWA marked the beginning of its zenith, it also laid the groundwork for Howard Hughes’ eventual exit from TWA despite the near-limitless capital that he could access from his own parent company Hughes Toolco.
In February 1956 Hughes ordered eight Boeing 707-120s, followed in June 1956 with an order for 30 Convair 880s, and then in May 1957 with 25 more Boeing 707s. These three orders for the 63 jets, totaled $300 million – quite a large sum in those days!
TWA raised additional funds with a one-to-one stock offering underwritten by Hughes Toolco which also gave Hughes 77% control of the airline. But the money raised from the stock offer wasn’t enough and it looked like TWA wouldn’t be able to meet its payroll obligations for the first quarter of 1958. Hughes borrowed $12 million from the banks but at this point, one of TWA’s original 1945 backers, Equitable Life, wanted a long-term financing plan for the 63-jet order as it was getting nervous about Hughes’ borrowing to meet basic costs (like payroll).
To ease the creditors, Hughes had Toolco accept the obligations for the jet order who in turn would lease the aircraft to TWA. Aircraft orders were swapped with Pan American (which pained Hughes to have to approach his rival Juan Trippe to help TWA out) and the Convair order was cut to 20 aircraft. But it still wasn’t enough and in March 1960 some of Hughes’ banks cut off his credit.
Along with the other creditors, a short-term financing plan was arranged which would allow TWA to keep operating provided Toolco assumed all financial liabilities for the airline and as long as there was a change in management at TWA. To further put the brakes on Hughes, his shares in TWA were put into a voting trust which essentially (and controversially for the day) locked out Hughes from the airline.
At the end of 1960, and while a financing plan agreeable to all the parties was eventually settled upon, Hughes still found himself shut out. For six years, lawsuit and countersuit after another were filed as he tried to regain control of TWA. He would finally give up in 1966 when in May of that year Hughes Toolco sold off its entire share of TWA stock; while this meant he was out of the airline business for the time being, four years later he bought Air West.
Despite the legal battle over leadership and control of TWA (the airline still held gravitas in the airline market and with the traveling public), in 1969 it managed to overtake Pan Am in in numbers of passengers flown across the Atlantic. Despite Hughes’ virtual ouster in 1960, TWA’s managers realized they had something that rival Pan Am didn’t – a domestic route network. Hot on the heels of the launch of 707 services, it was high time to bring short haul jet services to TWA’s network.
In 1961 TWA had ordered 10 Sud-Aviation Caravelles that would have been powered by GE aft fan CJ805 engines, but in May 1962 when Boeing’s 727-100 offered great promise, that order was cancelled. In fact in March 1962, TWA had already ordered the Boeing 727-100 (10 aircraft) while it still had the Caravelle order in place.
The airline’s first two Boeing 727-100s (N850TW and N851TW) were delivered on the same day, 29 April 1964. The first 727-100 services started on 1 June 1964 with two daily round trips between New York JFK and Indianapolis; on 5 June services expanded to Boston, St. Louis and Kansas City. On 1 July 1964, TWA returned to New York La Guardia with four 727 flights per day. By the end of 1964, the 100th jet aircraft in TWA’s fleet was in fact a Boeing 727-100 which the airline dubbed the ‘Jetennial’ plane. By the end of 1964, TWA already had sixteen 727-100s in service.
The delivery of the Boeing 727-100s, on 6 April 1967, allowed TWA to finally retire its last passenger Lockheed Constellations and become the first all-pure jet major airline in the United States. The last cargo Constellations were retired in the following month (12 May) with the introduction of six examples of ‘quick change’ 727-100QC variant in the airline’s fleet. The -100QCs were ordered in 1965. On 6 March 1968, with the 727-100 and the new Douglas DC-9 now flying short/medium jet services, TWA added the larger Boeing 727-200 to its fleet – the first 200 being N12301.
Over its history, TWA’s 727s were a vital backbone of its fleet with an operating total of 36 727-100s and 78 727-200s; in fact, the 727 served longer with TWA than any other aircraft type used on a continuous basis by the airline.
The Lockheed Constellation family, from the short body L-749 to the L-1649 Starliner, served for about 20 years and the Boeing 707s nearly served 25 years. The 727 at TWA outlasted the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar by nine years and the Boeing 747 by about seven years.
On 30 September 2000, the last 727 service at TWA took place – a remarkable 36-year history for the venerable trijet with the airline.