It was 1962. JFK was president. The Dodgers moved into LA’s Dodger Stadium. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened. America and the world were changing. And, Eero Saarinen’s breathtaking TWA Flight Center opened in what would become JFK Airport.
My first memory of that landmark was in 1977, right before Christmas, we were flying to Portugal to spend the holidays with our family. I remember the soaring ceilings, the bright red carpets and Santa and his sleigh hanging from the ceiling. Over next 20 years I would spend many an hour in that terminal, waiting for flights, connecting on my own as a teenager. It was our gateway to Portugal, and back then there were precious few lights to Lisbon other than TWA flight 900.
And the rebirth of the TWA Flight Center is an amazing example that historic preservation not only works, but that it celebrates a dead brand, a rare accomplishment.
I just came back from spending the weekend at the new TWA Hotel. And, I gotta say it is a lesson in branding. The hotel celebrates TWA everywhere and in everything - you cannot walk away and not be in awe of the lost airline. While I have to admit I was truly saddened in 2001 when TWA stopped flying, I saw it as a triggering event. The world would change in 2001. Air travel would no longer be fun or glamorous. Security, nickel and dime pricing, and waves of consolidation would make air travel more like riding a bus.
But, visit the TWA Hotel, and you are swept back in time. Howard Hughes is forever associated with the company. It offered the first coast to coast service back in 1930. It helped pioneer the DC-1 that would lead to the legendary DC-3. They offered the first pressurized cabins in the late 1930s. And working with Lockheed, TWA helped design the famous Constellation. They pioneered flights to Europe in the 1950s. They were the first US airline to hire an African-American flight attendant. At their height, it would own the Hilton hotel chain and have more than 10,000 employees. It was the first US airline to fly an all jet fleet. In 1988 1 out of 2 passengers flying to Europe from the US flew TWA.
But, if the last TWA flight was in 2001, why is the brand so strong today? Yes, nostalgia — but there is another fact too. Branding. Along with its New York TWA Flight Center in the early 1960s came branding Saarinen’s very design as a masterpiece — a cathedral to aviation steeped in TWA red and white. The airline imposed its brand with coordination and style on everything it did — the use of logo, color, uniforms, ticketing, promotional ties built a strong brand that is modern and powerful, more than 20 years after the company shut down. Think about it: Eastern, Continental, Braniff, US Air, Midway and Northwest - long gone, and almost forgotten.
It is a lesson to us all — a clean logo, and religious dedication to brand, and a brand that is simple and easy to embrace. Yes, a name like TransWorld Airlines says a lot, but the aircraft, building, fashion and feel — TWA lived up to its claim. And, if we tend to overinflated it today, it is because no other airline, not even the once-great PanAm, could or can live up to the TWA legend as the airline to stars. Both celebrity and celestial, they even built a fake rocket and put it on the company headquarters.
Then the world got smaller, more complicated, and a lot less stylish. The TWA Hotel is a not-so subtle monument to what we gave up in travel. When TWA shut down in 2000, the Saarinen-designed Flight Center was deemed too hard to operate in the era of TSA. Preservationists saved it from the fate of the PanAm Word Center and Penn Station. But, new construction encircled it in and cut it off from Saarinen’s vision of a window on aviation. Entombed, the terminals sat empty. But in almost a thumb in the eye to modern air transport, the new hotel has filled the Flight Center’s view with the classic Lockheed Constellation. No modern aircraft can capture the romance and beauty of a Connie. It makes everything else seem meh, and that is the power of incredible branding. It’s not good because it’s old, but old because it is good.
TWA’s font, its colors and logo are better than many modern aviation brands — and they have come to stand for a nostalgic return to when flying was cool, when American airlines led in the world. It still stands as a giant of branding, while others still seem small in comparison.