People Express grew to place in aviation history

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Starting in 1981 from a mostly empty airport terminal in Newark, N.J., People Express grew in just four years to become one of the largest U.S. airlines, measured by the number of passengers it carried.

People Express offered no-frills service at prices far below those of major competitors.

Flying on People Express could be an adventure ? London for $149! ? and a headache. Passengers camped out for cheap stand-by seats on flights that were often overbooked. They paid extra for checked bags, food and drinks back when most airlines provided those things free.

The hassle factor led some to call the airline “People Distress.” For a while, however, it all worked. The company made money, and Chairman Donald Burr won a spot on the cover of Time magazine in January 1986 under the headline: “Fare games: Flying has never been cheaper.”

Within months of the cover story, however, the airline was in big trouble. Its rapid growth meant higher expansion costs, more debt and more competition from giants such as United and American. It put itself up for sale.

Texas Air Corp. bought People Express and folded it into Continental Airlines. By early 1987, the People Express name was part of aviation history, though former employee Michael Morisi is going for a remake.

The new PeoplExpress Airlines announced Monday that it will be headquartered at Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport in southeastern Virginia and hopes to offer flights on the East Coast this summer.

It still needs financing and federal approval.