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Thomas Braniff: Dallas’ Original Airliner

The aviation entrepreneur came from humble stock in Kansas and built one of the world's largest airlines that would revolutionize aviation marketing.
| |Photography Courtesy of Braniff International
Frequent Fliers: Thomas and Bess Braniff, with an airline employee, in front of a Douglas DC-3 in the 1940s.

A native of Salina, Kansas, Thomas Elmer Braniff was born in 1883 and was the eldest of six children. His father was an early pioneer in the region and moved the family to Oklahoma Territory around 1900. Braniff joined his father’s insurance business before opening his own firm in Oklahoma City. The company sold fire and tornado insurance, but he was forced to start over when a tornado destroyed a community where the company held numerous policies. He used the new company’s profits to pay the policyholders’ claims.

The new company grew to be one of the largest of its kind in the Southwest—and allowed him to build the city’s first skyscraper in 1923. The Braniff building is a ten-story structure designed by Solomon Andrew Layton that would be the first office for Braniff’s eponymous airline company and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After being damaged by the Oklahoma City Bombing, it is now home to a restaurant and law firm.

In 1928, he joined his brother, Paul Revere Braniff, to operate the first airline in the Southwest, which flew executives between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, where an oil boom was attracting investors. Called Paul F. Braniff Inc., the company was eventually purchased by the successor to American Airlines.

The brothers formed a new aviation company that became Braniff International Airways in 1930. In the depths of the great depression, the airline landed a route between Oklahoma City and Chicago and airmail business that solidified its future. Twelve years later, it moved its headquarters to Dallas Love Field.

After World War II slowed growth, the airline exploded after World War II. At its peak, it was one of the largest airlines in the world, with 12,000 employees and global routes.

Thomas Braniff served as president of the airline but tragically died in a private plane crash in 1954. He outlived his son Truman, who died in a training aircraft crash in 1938, and his daughter Jeanne, who died giving birth in 1948. A devout Catholic, Braniff was granted the title of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory by Pope Pius XII, the highest honor a layman can receive.

After Braniff’s death, the company grew from a regional airline to an international powerhouse under charismatic president Harding Lawrence. It acquired other airlines and increased the number of flights worldwide. The company also revolutionized how airlines marketed themselves with the “End of the Plain Plane” campaign led by advertising executive Mary Wells Lawrence, the first female CEO of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The initiative included space-age-themed couture uniforms for flight attendants and bright colors on the Braniff jets’ interiors and exteriors. When the Airline Deregulation Act went into effect in 1978, Braniff executives knew only a few legacy airlines would survive, and the company made a strong push to establish itself with added routes and more aircraft. But the oil crisis that followed the Iranian revolution in 1979, rising interest rates, an air traffic controller strike in 1981, and unfortunately timed expansion of jets spelled the end for the airline, which ceased to fly routes in 1982.

Today, Braniff’s legacy Braniff lives on through Tom Braniff Drive and the Braniff Centre at Love Field airport, the Braniff Graduate School of Liberal Arts at the University of Dallas, and the historic 60,000-square-foot mid-century Braniff building near Wycliffe and the Dallas North Tollway, which once housed the airline’s hostess college. The Braniff name continues to operate today under several brands as a retailer, hotelier, travel service, and branding license company. The Braniff name continues to operate today under several Braniff brands as a retailer, hotelier, travel service, and branding license company.


Will Maddox

Will Maddox

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Will is the senior writer for D CEO magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He's written about healthcare…