It all started with an insurance agent and a small plane. From there, it grew into an aviation empire and one of the most recognizable names in Texas aviation.
From the humble beginnings of Braniff Airlines, the story of Tom Braniff grew into one of many colorful tales about Texas pilots and businessmen and their quest to conquer the skies.
Thomas Elmer Braniff was born in December 1883 in Salina, Kansas to a family of farmers. His father, John Braniff, soon switched to the insurance business and moved the family to Kansas City in the 1890s.
The Braniffs were devoted Catholics. The younger Braniff held a variety of jobs while graduating high school, including working at a meatpacking plant and working for the Kansas City Star. In 1900 the family moved to Oklahoma City, where John Braniff began working for a new insurance agency.
The younger Braniff soon wanted to branch out and soon started his own insurance agency west of Oklahoma City at the age of 17. However, his company went bankrupt when a tornado wiped out a nearby community where Braniff had sold tornado insurance and was unable to pay the claims.
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He soon returned to Oklahoma City and started a new company with a partner. The new company struggled in the early years, but in 1917 he was able to buy out his partner. Shortly thereafter he expanded into Braniff Investments and soon had one of the most successful insurance agencies in the region.
In the 1920s, Braniff looked to the future. In 1923 he built the TE Braniff Building in Oklahoma City, a 10-story building that was Oklahoma’s first skyscraper. He was also fascinated by aviation, and his younger brother Paul already had a license and his own plane.
In 1927, Braniff and a group of investors bought a used airplane and formed the Oklahoma Aero Club, started a flight school, started an air taxi service, and sold airplane parts. In 1928 he bought out his partners and started an airline, with his brother Paul as President and Chief Pilot and himself as Vice President, which he named Paul R. Braniff Inc. It operated a single route between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
The next year the first Braniff Airlines was sold, but in 1930 the two started again, with Braniff Airways operating routes from Oklahoma City to either Tulsa or Wichita Falls. In 1935, he expanded deeper into Texas by buying Long and Harmon Airlines, a small Dallas-based airline that also had routes to Amarillo, Brownsville, and Galveston.
More importantly, this smaller airline also had a lucrative airmail deal that guaranteed a paid service to these different cities. In 1936, Braniff bought Bowen Airlines, a small company operating out of Fort Worth.
Despite his growing success, he met tragedy. In 1938 his son died in a plane crash. He kept moving forward anyway. By the late 1930s, the airline was now Dallas-based and operated up to eight flights a day from Dallas Love Field, contributing to the airport’s growing success. Most maintenance was also done in Dallas at this time.
When World War II began, the Braniff brothers stepped forward. Paul Braniff, now in his 40s, served as a pilot during World War II while his brother, by then too old for the military, controlled the airline and his other business interests at home.
Tom Braniff donated all of the airline’s DC-2 aircraft to the military, which were older but still reliable aircraft when the airline transitioned to the DC-3. Braniff also arranged to share her Love Field facilities with the military for maintenance and training of pilots and mechanics.
After World War II, Braniff began routes through Central America and the Caribbean. They also steadily expanded across the Midwest. In 1952 he bought Mid-Continent Airlines. At this point, the airline dream that started with a used aircraft now had a fleet of 75 aircraft, 400 pilots and 4,000 employees.
In the mid-1950s it was the tenth largest airline in the country. However, Thomas Braniff tragically died in 1954 at the age of 70 in a private plane crash near Shreveport. His brother Paul died of cancer a few months later.
The airline he founded existed for a few more years and was an integral part of Dallas aviation. By 1955, the company’s payroll reached $22 million (more than $240 million in modern dollars), and the airline built a new terminal at Love Field in 1958.
Until the mid-1960s, the number of passengers and the kilometers flown by passengers increased steadily. The company went through a series of acquisitions in the 1960s but remained profitable well into the 1970s.
When the federal government deregulated airline routes in 1978, Braniff executives tried to take advantage by purchasing a number of new aircraft and launching new routes. However, the new routes were not as profitable, and the company quickly lost money.
Braniff Airlines finally went bankrupt in 1982, a victim of increased competition, fuel prices and a botched attempt at expansion that resulted in high levels of debt.
New buyers attempted to revitalize the airline in 1984, mostly using employees from the old Braniff, but these efforts failed in 1989. A second attempt to revitalize the airline began in 1991 but failed the next year.
The Braniff Airways Foundation, a charity established by the airline, still works to further the history of aviation. ￼