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Airlines of YesterYear: Business Express Airlines

As a pilot and all-around fan of the airline industry's history, I have a fondness for airlines that have flown off into the sunset.  Thinking about a defunct airline makes me think about the people who put in the "blood, sweat, and tears" to make the airline "fly" for as long as possible.  I also have a soft spot for little commuter airlines that flew those small "puddle-jumpers" that took people from their homes to bigger cities nearby.

In the soon-to-be 20 years that I have been flying planes for a living, I spent the first half of my career flying those small commuter planes.  I still prefer to do that sort of short-haul flying, but the routes I fly today are often much longer. 

However, I must say that without going into too much detail, the long work hours and little pay (I made less than poverty-level wages) at commuter airlines shouldn't be glossed over just for the sake of nostalgia.  

It was a rough start to my career.  Shortly after beginning it, the mandatory retirement age for pilots was adjusted from 60 to 65, halting the career progression for many young pilots by five years.  Then, in 2008, the economy ground to a halt, and I was furloughed, merged, downgraded, and bankrupted in the next three years.

The airline went bankrupt, not me.  Although with what they paid me, I may as well have filed for bankruptcy protection myself.  Back then, we would work 14 or 16-hour days and get only 8 hours off between flights.

Life at a commuter airline was hard... but it was also FUN.  

In fact, it's the most fun I've had in my entire career.  I really flew those planes.  Yes, we'd occasionally use the autopilot, but we did most of it by hand.  We had paper charts open to navigate instead of letting a computer guide us. 
We all got paid peanuts.  You could take that literally, and you'd be close to accurate.  Most days, I could only afford to eat the free peanuts on the plane.  We were all suffering together, and we made those long days go quicker by having fun.  We held landing competitions, competing to see how good (or bad) we could make them.  We joked with each other and laughed all day and spent several days only speaking in movie quotes.  

We got to know the gate agents in the smaller stations.  It seemed like they were always grilling burgers or hotdogs out on the ramp and were always willing to give us some before we left.  I was given moose burgers in Maine and hotdogs in New York more than once.  They understood what it was like, and I was always grateful.  

You can't do things like that anymore.  No one has the spare time; we're all doing more with less.  Any "fun" at work must be corporate-sanctioned.  

One of the other positives of my early career was that I learned a lot from the Captains at my first airline.  I flew with guys so skilled from the military that they could navigate by just the stars alone.  I flew with guys that would demand I fly without the autopilot on short routes to gain the skill I needed in case the airplane ever failed at the worst possible moment.  I even flew with guys who smoked in the cockpit at JFK while waiting for takeoff, rules be damned.  That wasn't a lesson, but I learned to pick and choose my battles.

I was proud to work for that airline.  Even mentioning its name today has a bit of cache to it.  That is, if anyone in today's group of pilots cares about that sort of thing anymore.

I say all of this so that once you're done reading this article, hopefully, you may develop some understanding of the "blood, sweat, and tears" that go into the airlines of this new series I'm calling Airlines of YesterYear.  You can read about two I previously wrote about as part of my Commercials series: Kiwi International and Spirit Airlines.  Spirit hasn't flown off into the sunset yet, but it will disappear when it merges with jetBlue in the next year or four.  

At the second airline I worked for, I flew old propeller airplanes that looked like they were held together with duct tape and bubble gum.  I'm kidding... maybe.  However, some of them once flew for an airline that many who worked in the industry held in high regard years before.  I am fortunate to have flown on them as a passenger and, a decade later, to fly them as a pilot.  

That airline was Business Express Airlines.  If you remember my article about the summer I flunked math and fell in love with flying, you'll remember my story about traveling on BizEx to and from my summer make-up exam.  Click here to read it.

At one time, Business Express Airlines was viewed as the gold standard for regional (commuter) airlines.  Business Express was once the largest commuter airline in the North Eastern United States, carrying 1.4 million passengers annually.  Back in Business Express' day, these small airlines were considered actual commuter airlines since the "regional jet" had not yet changed the structure of the airline business.  

BizEx (as it's often called) first took off in 1982 as Atlantic Air, operating an 8-passenger Piper Navajo.  Trying to capture the needs of the commuting businessman, the airline changed its name in 1985 to Business Express Airlines. 

On February 28, 1986, Business Express purchased Pilgrim Airlines, the Groton, Connecticut-based airline.  Pilgrim itself had just completed the acquisition of another Connecticut-based airline out of New Haven called NewAir in 1985.  NewAir had been operating 18-seat Embraer 110 and 36-seat Shorts 360 aircraft under a codeshare agreement with Eastern Airlines when Pilgrim purchased it.  Pilgrim soon purchased several 44-seat Fokker F27 aircraft, allowing it to fly longer, more profitable routes such as Washington, DC.  

A Pilgrim Airlines F27

The combined Pilgrim-NewAir gave Business Express a new hub in New York's LaGuardia Airport, an additional 32 aircraft, 450 employees, and a route structure that carried 375,000 passengers annually with a reported revenue of $35 million.  

Business Express quickly disposed of Pilgrim's older and slower 19-seat Twin Otter aircraft, along with the larger F27 aircraft that had higher operating costs than the rest of the fleet.

While NewAir, Pilgrim, and Business Express all had started in Connecticut, it was the Business Express brand that grew to serve many new destinations outside the state and carry more passengers throughout the Northeast.  Additional acquisitions of competitors, fleet replacements, marketing agreements, and route realignments would become the story of the 'new' combined airline over the next several years.

Four years later, in September of 1989, Business Express purchased a small commuter airline, Mall Airways, based in Albany, New York.  This acquisition enabled Business Express to increase the size of its fleet, both in numbers and physical size, with the addition of Mall's two 19-seat Beech 1900 aircraft and several smaller ones.  This purchase of Mall provided BizEx access to new Canadian markets, namely Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa.

Months later, in December, Business Express purchased Brockway Air, another small commuter airline based in Burlington, Vermont.  Brockway, formerly Air North, had a sizeable fleet of 19-seat Beech 1900 and 34-seat Saab 340 cabin-class turboprop aircraft.  The Saab 340 would remain in Business Express' fleet until the airline's final day, becoming the airline's reliable workhorse.

The Business Express Saab 340

Shortly after the expansion into major markets like Washington and LaGuardia, the size and value of the airline increased to the point it was approached by Delta Air Lines to operate under a revenue-sharing program.  Business Express became one of Delta Air Line's first Delta Connection carriers, along with Atlantic Southeast Airlines in Atlanta, Comair in Cincinnati, and SkyWest Airlines in Salt Lake City.  

In the early 90s, the airline negotiated an unconventional (for the time) second codeshare agreement with Northwest Airlines, becoming the official Northwest Airlink regional affiliate in New England and Eastern Canada on top of its codeshare with Delta.  Later, in 1997, the airline added a third partner, American Airlines, under the American Connection banner.

These multiple codeshare affiliations were part of a significant expansion plan to include longer-range aircraft that could fly beyond the North East.  These plans included using jet aircraft and enhanced schedule cooperation with the mainline partners that opened access to new markets. 

1993 saw significant route and fleet expansion for BizEx, seeing substantial growth in New York's LaGuardia and JFK airports, along with Boston's Logan Airport.  Business Express was Boston's largest airline by this time, operating 158 daily departures.  The growth outpaced the airline's ability to accommodate the number of passengers traveling through its major hubs, and plans were put in place to construct and remodel new facilities in Boston and New York.

A year prior, in 1992, Business Express had purchased five 69-passenger British Aerospace BAe-146 jet aircraft from Discovery Airways, a Hawaii-based airline that had recently gone out of business.  Following the announcement of the BAe-146 aircraft, BizEx placed an order for 20 brand-new Avro RJ70 aircraft.  The Avro RJ70 was a modern, updated version of the BAe-146.

The BAe-146 jets enabled Business Express to become the first Delta Connection carrier to operate a jet aircraft, predating the deliveries of the Canadair regional jets introduced nationwide by ASA, Comair, and SkyWest.  

While it gave Business Express a "big airline" feel, the jet aircraft never produced significant revenue.  Plans that initially had the jets flying the lucrative business corridor between Boston and Washington could not be put into place due to landing restrictions in Washington that prohibit a four-engine aircraft.  Due to exclusivity agreements with Comair and ASA, the jets could also not feed Delta's hubs in Cincinnati and Atlanta.  

At the end of 1994, BizEx launched the "Fly BEX Jets" marketing campaign to establish more than just a regional identity.  This campaign offered free round-trip flight vouchers for every round trip flown on one of the company's new jets.  The program was very popular with frequent flyers and reportedly most successful on the Boston to Baltimore route, but failed to generate significant ground in expanding the airline's presence beyond just the North East.

By the end of 1994, the airline continued pushing its route-structure boundaries and began looking to the Midwest.  Launching service to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with two flights a day on the new Avro RJ70 aircraft, BEX competed against Milwaukee-based Midwest Express Airlines.  Unfortunately, lower-than-anticipated passenger loads caused BizEx to retreat back to the Northeast by the start of 1996.  

Despite operating Northwest Airlink codeshares seasonally between Minneapolis and Aspen, Colorado, service to Milwaukee would become the airline's most western destination.  Following the retreat to its North East stronghold, the Business Express jet aircraft were left with Northeast corridor routes from Boston to Maryland and Virginia or west from New York to Cleveland or Detroit. 

The Minneapolis/St. Paul to Aspen service during the 1995-1996 skiing season included two daily nonstop flights using the 70-passenger Avro jet.  However, these flights required a costly seasonal repositioning of equipment, airplanes, and crew and would only last one year.

With the frequently weather-afflicted markets in the North East, Canada, and Upper Midwest, Business Express continued to seek more attractive routes southward.  Try as they might, Business Express couldn't penetrate the more southern vacation markets due to overlap with other Delta Connection carriers based in Cincinnati (Comair) and Atlanta (Atlantic Southeast Airlines).  

The high-pressure fluid demands of the business markets in the North East made it difficult for the airline to identify consistently profitable markets for its jet aircraft, and most of the orders for the RJ70 were canceled.  According to, the airline only ever took delivery of 3 Avro aircraft.  

In May of 1995, Business Express began a significant expansion and renovation of its primary passenger terminal in Boston.  A long-awaited facilities upgrade substantially increased the gate and ramp space in the "C" concourse, which included improved compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), new elevators and moving walkways, upgraded signage, and a refurbishment of passenger waiting areas.  These new waiting areas included refreshed seating, carpets, food options, and gift shops.  This new gate area also enabled the airline to reduce the number of remote airplane boardings (via bussing passengers to remote parking spots), where almost 90% of all flights departed directly from the gate.

By this time, BizEx would provide service to 33 airports in eleven states.  It also expanded its wings beyond the North East to a number of midwestern states, such as Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  It also provided regular service to eight airports in the four Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec.

In 1995, the airline moved its headquarters from Westport, Connecticut, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  In its final years, the airline would relocate to Dover, New Hampshire, but only after attempting, and very publicly failing, to move its headquarters and maintenance facility to Portland, Maine.  

In February 1998, the airline placed an $810 million order with Embraer for 20 ERJ-135 aircraft.  This order would advance the airline into the "regional jet age" of the early 2000s.  Deliveries were scheduled to begin in October 1999.

In December 1998, AMR Eagle Holding Corporation, the parent company of American Eagle Airlines, announced it would purchase Business Express Airlines.  Business Express had only been operating as an American Airlines affiliate under the American Connection brand for only 16 months.  After the purchase, BEX moved under the American Eagle branding (instead of American Connection) while it wound down its contract with Delta.  

On another personal note, in August of 1999, I had my first chance to fly on Business Express.  You can read about that trip in my article on The Summer I Flunked Math and Fell In Love With the Airline Business.  Little did I know that just a few months later, the airline would begin retiring those incredible Saab 340s as the airline began to wind down operations as a stand-alone carrier.  

According to a BEX flight timetable available online, by the end of 1999, the airline was slowing down and shrinking in size.  The route structure consisted of only 15 destinations in seven states:  Albany, Bangor, Boston, Burlington, Islip (Long Island), Manchester, Nantucket, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Presque Isle, Providence, Rochester, Syracuse, and White Plains.  They also flew to Halifax, Ottawa, and Quebec City in Canada. 

The purchase of BizEx proved lucrative for American Airlines by buying themselves prime gate opportunities and landing slots in Boston, La Guardia, and Washington National airports.  They also gained access to Business Express' order for 20 ERJ 135 jet aircraft and the options for 40 more.  
By the end of 1999, BizEx began returning its Saab fleet to their lessor as the regional jet deliveries began arriving.  

A year later, on December 1, 2000, the airline ceased to exist when all operations were officially merged into American Eagle.  The last reported flight under the Business Express "BizEx" call sign was a run from its former home in Boston to a maintenance facility in Bangor, Maine.

As that airline's history came to a close following its integration into American Eagle, I can only imagine its former employee's pride for a job well done and sadness for what once was considered by many to be a once great airline.

I've mentioned a few times that I consider myself lucky to have flown on them as a passenger and pilot of those same planes (albeit a different airline) later in life.  In writing this series, I hope to create a historical lookback at airlines of the past.  I also hope that non-aviation enthusiasts learn more about the industry.  

Or, at the very least, you, my dear reader, find these stories interesting and enjoy reading a little about airlines of the past.  

Do you remember Business Express?  Did you work there?  Do you have any stories to share?  Let me know in the comments below.