Florida’s Commuter Airlines from the 1960s to the 1980s: Part Five -- Atlantic Gulf Airlines, Dolphin Airways, Florida Express and Marco Island Airways
In the church that I attend, we have a gospel hymn called "Wasted Opportunities". Lord Almighty knows that I have had my share of both secular and non-secular wasted opportunities in my 49-year span on this planet.
A Golden Opportunity
In October of 1983, a Florida commuter airline called Atlantic Gulf Airlines was featuring $19.00 one-way fares from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport to Miami. The flights were conducted by classic four-engine British turbo-prop aircraft called the Vickers Viscount. What an incredible opportunity to take a cheap flight to a great city on a classic English airliner! Time, of course, was running out on this airliner of the early 1950s and this would probably be its final regularly scheduled run in the United States.
It's Always Something!
Greg Van Stavern and I were really hyped on jumpin' on board a Viscount and heading down to Miami (just like how we were hyped to jump on an Air Sunshine (see issue 215) DC-3 and head to Key West), but alas, I was in no real shape to do this as I had broken my pelvis in an accident at Denis Lebrun's house in Barton, Vermont during a July 1983 vacation. I would be on crutches from August to November of 1983, so my physical activity had to be very limited. - - Scratch that idea!
There would of course be other wasted opportunities to fly classic airliners around the Sunshine State, which will be discussed further in next week's final chapter.
Atlantic Gulf Airlines
Atlantic Gulf Airlines began "Air Tram" low fare service between the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and Miami on October 14, 1983 using Convair 580 aircraft. It then expanded to using Vickers Viscount aircraft, but the services proved to be unprofitable and the carrier filed for bankruptcy on October 10, 1984.
The carrier next wet leased a BAC 1-11 jet from Air Illinois in order to provide service for a Miami at Tallahassee to Atlanta run, as well as a Tallahassee to Orlando run. The Clearwater based carrier was then merged into Air Illinois and expanded services to Grand Turk, Providenciales and Puerto Plata, also on behalf of Dominican carrier APA. Plagued again with financial problems, the carrier shut down in September 1986 and was liquidated by the end of that year.
Dolphin Airways was a Tampa based commuter that served a plethora of Florida cities utilizing the twin-engine Brazilian built aircraft the Embraer Bandarante.
Colorfully decked out in turquoise, white and orange (colors similar to that of the NFL's Miami Dolphins), the carrier served Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Melbourne, Miami, Daytona Beach, Gainesville, West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Panama City, Ft. Myers, Sarasota-Bradenton, Savannah, and Charleston. In February 1983 the carrier added Key West, Naples and the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport to its roster.
Starting by September 1983, Dolphin (which changed its name to Dolphin Airlines) began to scale back its route system dramatically. Only the cities of Pensacola, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando and West Palm Beach. (along with a newly acquired route to New Orleans) were left. By the beginning of 1984 Dolphin ceased operations. It was truly a great Florida commuter airline.
Possibly the last airline to do this in the Bay area, Dolphin offered sightseeing flights from Tampa International Airport for $10.00. They did this once in November 1982, and once in 1983. These were two golden opportunities that Greg Van Stavern and I took advantage of. I'll never forget the 1983 flight. The rock group "Chicago" had their private jet parked next to the Dolphin Airways Banderante that we toured on. Several months later the group would reemerge as a major rock force with its song "Stay the Night".
I'll also never forget on that same flight the view of looking down the aisle through the pilot's front windows and seeing the numbers "27" on the east-west runway rushing up to greet us due to the severe nose-down attitude required for the Banderante's landing approach.
When I worked at the Montgomery Ward store #1055 at the Clearwater Mall, I had the good fortune of knowing a beautiful young woman who worked at the customer service center. She worked there from 1984 to 1986, as I can best recall. This intelligent and attractive young lady was a native of Miami, and her family was settlers of that modern day metropolis.
This articulate young lady also worked part time at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport for an Orlando based darling of deregulation called Florida Express. In addition to offering low fares with hush-kitted BAC 1-11 jet aircraft from Orlando to St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, the carrier also flew low fare flights from Orlando to Norfolk, Nashville, Louisville, Richmond, Indianapolis and Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Williamsburg.
The non-union employee owned airline began service on January 26, 1984 and was purchased by Braniff on January 15, 1988. After purchase, the white and orange British twinjets of Florida Express had the tail logos and name removed with "Braniff Express" being repainted onto the aircraft.
Before Braniff tanked for the last time in November 1989, Florida Express' BAC 1-11 were probably the last of their kind to fly regularly scheduled services in the United States.
Marco Island Airways
Possibly no Florida commuter looked more coastal and tropical than Marco Island Airways. Sporting a white, turquoise and blue paint scheme (even the engine cowlings were painted a bright blue), this unique carrier utilized third hand Martin 404 pistons based out of the Marco Island airport at this southernmost Florida west coast city. The airline flew three daily round trip flights from Marco Island to Tampa-St. Petersburg, and two round trip flights to Miami. By January 1984 the carrier dropped service to Tampa-St. Petersburg, renamed itself Marco Airways, and expanded service to the Bahamas adding service to Freeport, Marsh Harbour, North Eleuthra, Rock Sound and Treasure Cay. The carrier also served as an Air Florida Commuter in the early 1980's and ceased operations by the mid 1980's. To see these colorful birds in the sub-tropical skies on approach to Tampa and Miami was truly magical.
Atlantic Gulf Airlines
1. Circa 1983 (St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Miami)
2. October 14, 1983 (St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Miami)
3. May 1, 1984 (St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Miami, Atlanta)
4. June 1, 1986 (Miami, Tallahassee, Atlanta, Orlando, Grand Turk, Providenciales and Puerto Plata)
1. January 15, 1982 (Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Melbourne, Miami, Daytona Beach, Gainesville, West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Panama City, Ft. Myers, Sarasota-Bradenton, Savannah, and Charleston)
2, February 1, 1983 (Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Melbourne, Miami, Daytona Beach, Gainesville, West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Panama City, Ft. Myers, Sarasota-Bradenton, Savannah, Charleston, Key West, Naples and St. Petersburg-Clearwater)
3. July 1, 1983 (Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Melbourne, Miami, Daytona Beach, Gainesville, West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Panama City, Ft. Myers, Sarasota-Bradenton, Savannah, Charleston, Key West, Naples, St. Petersburg-Clearwater and New Orleans)
4. September 15, 1983 (Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola and New Orleans)
5. January 1, 1984 (Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola and New Orleans)
1. August 3, 1984 (Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Norfolk, Nashville, Louisville, Richmond, Indianapolis and Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Williamsburg)
Marco Island Airways
1. October 25, 1981 (Tampa-St. Petersburg, Miami, Marco Island)
2. July 15, 1984 (Miami, Marco Island, Freeport, Marsh Harbour, North Eleuthra, Rock Sound and Treasure Cay)
Keep your seat belt fastened as we brace for final approach and review Air Florida, PBA-Naples, Southeast Airlines and Charter Airlines in next week's PCR!
"La Floridiana" is ©2004 by William Moriaty. Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2004 by Nolan B. Canova.