Western Pacific Airlines (W7) can trace its history back to 1994 when a team, led by America West Airlines (HP) founder Ed Beauvais, looked to create a new low-cost airline.
Initially known as Commercial Air, Oklahoma millionaire Edward Gaylord, who also owned Gaylord Hotels, invested heavily in the fledgling company. He requested that the name be changed to Western Pacific with the airline frequently referred to as WestPac.
WestPac’s New Home
One of WestPac’s first moves was to choose Colorado Springs Municipal Airport (COS) as its home base. The under-utilised facility was ripe for a new airline. This meant cheap operating costs and with little competition, this, management believed, would be the key to its success.
Flights commenced on April 28, 1995 from COS to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Oklahoma City. To operate the flights, eight second-hand Boeing 737-300s were sourced.
WestPac was also one of the first airlines in the world to use its aircraft as a flying billboard. Known as the “AirLogo Program,” the carrier promoted businesses with whom they cooperated and those part of its network.
The first company to sign up was a five-start Colorado Springs hotel, The Broadmoor. Examples included Stardust Resort and Casino, Las Vegas, Thrifty Car Rental and Purgatory Ski Resort, Colorado.
But one of the most famous was the bright yellow Simpsons jet. Fox Television had needed an advertising coup for that month’s Nielsen ratings sweeps for their long-running animated sitcom, The Simpsons. WestPac’s marketing staff met with Fox, who would pay $1 million for the colour scheme.
If an aircraft wasn’t a logo jet, then it would be given a catchy slogan such as “Super Summer Saver Jet” or “Winter Wonder Plane.”
At the height of its success, Westpac was operating up to 80 flights per day from COS. Its fleet would swell to 18 737-300s.
Colorado Springs Airport was also another major beneficiary of WestPac’s presence. The facility had opened a new terminal building in 1994. The arrival of the airline massively increased passenger numbers, five million in 1996 alone and also attracted other carriers to commence flights.
WestPac became a shareholder of a new regional carrier Mountain Air Express (M7), which commenced operations in December 1996. A fleet of nine Dornier 328 turboprops were acquired to provide a feed for WestPac’s services at COS and later DEN. The airline would be sold to Air Wisconsin (ZW) in 1998.
In October 1996, WestPac placed an order with Boeing for six Boeing 737-300s with options on a further six next-generation -700 models. Orders would begin in May 1997.
Speaking at the time, Chairman and CEO Ed Beauvais said that the 737-300: “is in considerable demand worldwide [and] it has been difficult to acquire more to facilitate our development requirements. The agreement includes the option to acquire six 737-700s in 1998 and beyond.”
Storm Clouds Gather
However, the airline lost $90 million in its first three years. Investors soon ousted the management team, including Beauvais. A new CEO, Robert Peiser, was brought in an attempt to turn around the airline’s fortunes.
Management believed that the only way to make a profit was to transfer its operations to Denver’s new airport. Slots became available after Continental Airlines (CO) closed its hub and in 1997, WestPac moved the majority of its services to the new facility.
Peiser also decided to do away with the airline’s logo jets. It hoped this would improve its image and attract higher-yielding business passengers. It also dropped many of its leisure routes. But the move would only increase WestPac’s debts.
WestPac’s arrival at DEN also marked the start of a codeshare agreement, and discussions of a potential merger, with another low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines (F9). The merger would have created the second-largest low-cost airline in the US after Southwest Airlines (SW).
However, WestPac’s precarious financial situation led to Frontier pulling out of the deal. “Cultural differences” were cited as the reason for the split. Speaking at the time, CEO Peiser said: “The merger was taking a toll on employee morale, financial performance and operations of both airlines. We also believe that given our cultural differences and the contrast in our scheduling philosophies, it is in the best interests of both companies to remain independent.”
The major airlines at DEN were not prepared to allow another low-cost carrier to erode their market. When WestPac began operations on their turf they immediately lowered their fares further damaging the companies finances.
Then Valujet (J7) Flight 592 crashed on May 11, 1996. Issues around maintenance and procedures at the airline were brought to light. This would have a huge impact on public perception of the newly emerging low-cost airlines.
WestPac declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December 1997 after announcing losses for the year of $87.7 million. It went on to win court approval for its reorganisation plan. This would see an initial $10 million loan from Smith Management Company (SMC) which would be used to keep the airline aloft. A further $10-20 million was due starting on December 20.
Sadly, time ran out for the airline despite Peiser’s optimism: “We believe Western Pacific’s turnaround was imminent, as evidenced by our bookings.” The carrier was forced to ground its operations on February 4, 1998.
N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.
© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross