iHistory - The Story of an Airline (1989 - 2004)

From rags to riches...

The story of Independence Air is one of unlikely beginnings and breaking the mold. From Atlantic Coast Airlines humble beginnings in December of 1989, to the launch of Independence Air in June of 2004, the management and employees of ACA and Independence consistently challenged the industry norm.


The Early Years

Atlantic Coast Airlines began as the "Atlantic Coast division" of a company called WestAir, which was a United Express partner operating out of SFO and LAX. In December of 1989, United's East Coast partner at the time-Presidential Airways-was suffering severe financial problems, and abruptly went out of business. Without many other options available, United called their WestAir partners, and asked if they would be willing to quickly assemble a new operation at Washington Dulles. That company's Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Kerry Skeen, was assigned to move east to get the whole thing rolling. It seemed like a great opportunity for Kerry and WestAir, but there was a catch-they had only 11 days to get underway. It was a difficult proposition, but one that Kerry and his team turned into a success story.

In addition to Kerry Skeen, the other primary founder of the ACA corporate structure was Ed Acker. Anyone who is familiar with the history of American commercial aviation knows that name. Mr. Acker is one of the biggest figures in the airline industry, after many years with PanAm World Airways, Branniff and Air Florida.

In 1991, WestAir experienced some financial difficulties and needed to sell off some assets. One of these was its "Atlantic Coast division." Mr. Acker spearheaded the private investor group that eventually bought the operation, and would later take it public. For him, ACA was something of a post-career retirement project, but his expertise and legendary name were critical in helping the company stay afloat. Mr. Acker was the first chairman of Atlantic Coast Airlines, a title he held until January 1, 2000. He remained a member of the Board of Directors, right up until the airlines closure.

A new operations executive was added to the management team in 1994. Tom Moore came to ACA after more than a decade at Continental Airlines in Houston. He had a reputation for tough, no-nonsense leadership, with particular expertise in operations and finance. Tom was the first member of the senior management team to be recruited directly from a major airline-without ever having worked for a regional operation. He began as Senior Vice President of Maintenance and Operations, before becoming Chief Operating Officer, and eventually, President.

Over the years, various aircraft came and went, including the Brasilia and the Dash-8 100 and 300 series. Eventually, the airline trimmed fleet types down to just two, the British Aerospace Jetstream-41 (29 passengers) and the J-32 (19 passengers). But the biggest aircraft story was the delivery of the first Canadair Regional Jet in 1997. The addition of new regional jets and replacement of the J-41s and J-32s would be the dominant growth story for the next several years.

Shortly after the jets started arriving, the company was given the opportunity to create a presence in United's own backyard- Chicago O'Hare. What started as just a few flights blossomed into a major portion of ACA's total capacity, as the ORD mini-hub wasn't so "mini" anymore.

October 1999 was another major milestone for ACA, as the company's expansion included a brand new deal with a brand new partner, Delta Air Lines. For the first time in its history, parent company Atlantic Coast Airlines Holdings, Inc. would simultaneously run two separate airlines- Atlantic Coast Airlines/United Express and the new Atlantic Coast Jet/Delta Connection operation. The process of completing the FAA certification for the new airline turned out to be a far greater challenge than anyone had expected, but in August 2000, ACJet began offering revenue service from New York LaGuardia to destinations up and down the East Coast. Eventually, flights from Boston and then Cincinnati would also be added. After about a year, the ACJet name would fade away, as both the Delta and United flights would be run under the same FAA certificate, and the combined operation would all simply be called "Atlantic Coast Airlines."

Growth in the RJ fleet as a fee per departure company continued as the raison d'etre for Atlantic Coast Airlines. However, in November 2002, United Airlines filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. As part of their cost cutting efforts, United offered ACA a contract significantly inferior to its current agreement. Knowing that the continued growth offered by UAL would likely come to an end with a contract renegotiation, ACA leadership began working on an alternative plan. The more they studied it, and the more they brought it to life, the more it looked like the best possible option for the future, rather than just an alternative.

So, leadership and front line employees alike went to the drawing board and asked "How can we make an airline that gets it? How can we create an airline that will make traveling not just fast and easy, but even enjoyable? The answer wasn't just to break the mold, but to smash it completely. The result was Independence Air.

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