Personally, I had admittedly known very little about Carnival’s attempt at an airline before being suggested as a topic by a good friend. Who could blame me? But the more I read, the more I found to like. At different points, Carnival flew to many airports (metaphorically) close to home for me, such as Long Island and Worcester. As someone who seeks to try as many airlines as possible, I am disappointed I did not get my chance to add Carnival to my ever-growing list. This is why we need time travel and fast.
Carnival Cruise Lines
To understand the airline, I feel that it is beneficial first to understand the parent company and why they might find it in their best interest to acquire a small airline. While most of us have not ventured on a cruise, odds are we know about Carnival. If you had asked, I could not even name any of their competitors - I might assume they were the only cruise ship operator.
Present-day, Carnival operates twenty departure ports spread out worldwide. However, their original and most significant port is in the city they call home - Doral, Florida. Doral sits a short drive from Miami International Airport and a doable drive from Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport up the highway.
In the late-1980s, Carnival was gearing up for expansion. They prepared to retire some of their older ships in favor of newer ones, and Carnival implemented various new selections for customers. Between 1985 and 1987, Carnival ordered three new cruise ships to add to their fleet. With a promising outlook, the company sought new ways to continue its growth.
Photo: Aldo Bidini.
Carnival Air Lines
The airline we came to know was not an organic Carnival product. In 1984, the airline industry welcomed charter operator Pacific Interstate Airlines. Utilizing a single Boeing 727-100, the airline operated out of Las Vegas - a far cry from Miami - flying charter work between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. However, after only two years and several failed attempts at securing a scheduled operating certificate, the owners changed the name to Bahamas ExPress and moved operations to Freeport.
In 1988, Carnival acquired the charter operator and toyed with the idea to creatively brand it “Fun Air” or “Majestic Air,” both a nod to different facets of the Carnival brand. In 1989, the airline was named Carnival Air Lines, an intelligent marketing move to exploit a strong and established brand. Carnival moved operations to Fort Lauderdale, with occasional service from Miami to New York-JFK. Initially, Carnival would establish routes to shuttle passengers from their colder homes to ships taking them to warmer climates.
Beginning in 1990, the airline began to expand its fleet with Boeing 737-200 and Boeing 737-400 aircraft, ideal for the routes up and down the Eastern Seaboard into smaller airports. In 1994, the Airbus A300 was introduced to Carnival’s fleet to target higher-density routes between major airports. The unique fleet mix made the airline a popular spotting target amongst aviation enthusiasts.
Photo: Vintage Airliners.
Carnival supplemented its network by partnering with the Caribbean operator Paradise Island Airlines, allowing passengers to transfer to Key West and Paradise Island destinations. These routes utilized 50-seat DeHavilland Dash 7 aircraft from 1996 until Carnival ceased operations.
The end of Carnival Air Lines came from the beginning of a new carrier. In September 1997, Pan Am Corporation - the holding firm for the attempted reincarnation of Pan American Airways - purchased Carnival Air Lines to acquire assets for its operations, including Carnival’s operating certificate. The new Pan Am would operate under Carnival’s certificate until 2004 when the attempted startup ceased operations.
It is not uncommon for businesses to venture into multiple industries. For instance, Richard Branson successfully launched an airline of his own under his Virgin branding. Carnival was already in the travel and vacation segments. It was a good idea to help the organization extend its revenue streams from when passengers arrived at the airport until the moment they left, concluding their trip.
Carnival is yet another example of how a quiet well-structured airline can significantly impact the strong market connecting the Northeast to Florida. Just in the New York City area alone, Carnival served the big three (Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark) at various points in time in addition to secondary airports such as New York Stewart International, Westchester County Airport, and Long Island MacArthur Airport.
The airline also did what it could to maximize its financial output. In 1992, Carnival established an interline with Iberia to connect Madrid with Los Angeles via Miami. The flights were first operated by Boeing 737-400s, which were upgauged once the carrier introduced the Airbus A300 to its fleet. The airline would also lease aircraft to meet the market's demands, such as a Sierra Pacific Boeing 737-300 and a LAN Chile Boeing 767.
Unfortunately, Pan Am did not have much luck either, which is a shame. As a result, in 2004, the aviation world lost two substantial air carriers for the price of one. Some assets, such as the original Boeing 727 aircraft, would be sold to Boston-Maine Airways, where they would fly for some time before folding in 2008.
Photo: Departed Flights.
The parent company, Carnival, eventually chose the right name (after a couple of tries). The airline’s initial ideas to vaguely connect aspects of its branding to creative titles would not have maximized the potential of associating brand recognition with the newly-formed airline. Carnival has always been viewed favorably amongst consumers, drawing passengers to the airline in pursuit of a similar experience.
Carnival Air Lines was positioned well. While the airline never operated as a dedicated low-cost carrier, it could offer a friendly experience with competitive airfares using single-class seating. Additionally, the airline focused on a mix of large and small airports and had presences in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. It would be rather costly for an airline its size to do marginal business at both, but they made it work.
The airline's performance was particularly impressive because there was little dedicated marketing push exclusively for the carrier. Instead, marketing focused on maximizing the primary cruise line business, exposing Carnival Air Lines to compete against other airlines with dedicated budgets and resources. At smaller locations, marketing responsibilities fell mainly to the airport to make it work - some did, some did not.
Carnival Air Lines Today
Well, at least the cruise ship line is still around. While Carnival’s former fleet is outdated by today’s standards, some Boeing 737-400s still fly today. One is flying for iAero Airways (Swift Air) as N285XA, and another is for the U.S. Marshals Service as N279AD. Other aircraft are dispersed worldwide, some actually converted to cargo where they will live out their remaining days.
Carnival, a conglomerate competing in another industry, opening up an airline of its own is not a dynamic we often see anymore. The airline industry is daunting for some, and its volatility scares many prospective competitors. However, as we know, a lack of adaptability will take out even the largest organizations. Should it make sense for another company to venture into airlines, I bet we see something similar.
Oh, and Carnival Cruise Lines is still very much alive. Instead of shuttling passengers on their own aircraft, Carnival works with several airlines via its Fly2Fun program. In this program, customers can select air options from major carriers and flights from the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, and Europe. Carnival also offers flight protection should any disruptions to the original itinerary occur.