National Airlines: The Florida Airline

National Airlines

MIAMI – There could not have been a more perfect Florida ambassador, and airline, than National Airlines.

When the “Sunshine Airline” merged into Pan American World Airways in 1980, a uniquely Florida institution was lost. Arguably, it was the only airline that promoted a state as its marketing position and achieved national prominence with that approach. (New York Air sort of succeeded for a time; Air Florida was the other, and we know what happened there.)

National, founded in 1934 by George T. Baker, did everything for Florida. It was the first domestic jet carrier and the first all-jet carrier. It pioneered transatlantic service from the South to Europe. After being taken over by appliance heir Bud Maytag, it created a nationwide stir with the airline’s 1971 “Fly Me” campaign, which highlighted stewardesses telling of reasons to “Fly Me” by flying National. Feminists protested, but the campaign worked.

The Florida sun theme (and Sun King logo) was everywhere, and not just painted on DC-10 tails.

In New York’s JFK, National built the Sundrome, an extravantly elegant glass-walled terminal designed by I.M. Pei. (It sits next to the TWA Flight Center (now of JetBlue) and the Pan Am Worldport (now of Delta). No matter what the weather in New York, this Florida “embassy” was warm and sunny, filled with gorgeous flight attendants in Oleg Cassini uniforms taking guests to the sun. National changed the marketing of Florida from a seasonal destination to an all-year market. It also helped change the image of Florida as a place not only of hotels and swamp-brokers, but a state where technological leadership and business acumen were celebrated.

Every bit of the airline was close to perfection. The airline even owned its planes outright, which made it a too-plump takeover target. It is a cautionary tale, and proof that in capitalism, something that is run very well can still disappear for reasons that have little to do with economics.

A successor airline also had the moniker National Airlines, but it had no direct connection with the original. For a time in the 1990s, the Sun King logo appeared on the planes of Key Airlines, which was a small Southeast airline.

21 Comments

  1. Great post!

    I agree! National Airlines will long be remembered for its contribution to the Sunshine State.

    Here is some National trivia:

    American Airlines (ironically, the purchaser of many of Eastern’s Miami assets after that carrier failed) maintains planes today in the former National hangar in in Miami.

    The building– in the shape of a large circle– won the AIA’s “Test of Time” award in 2000.
    http://www.aiamiami.com/chapt2000.php

    There is also a George T. Baker School of Aviation run by the county adjacent to MIA.
    http://bakeraviation.dadeschools.net/admissions.html

    I also remember a friend’s grandfather growing up who was a National DC-10 captain.

    I logged several trips aboard Sun King DC-10s and 727s as a kid.

    JM

  2. The SunKing logo was acquired by Southeast Airlines, not Key.

  3. mcd

    thanks for settin it right on the Southeast and the Sun King. I don’t even know why I had Key in my head.

  4. I am the son-in-law of Floyd Tolar, who was one of Mr. Baker’s first three employees. He was in charge of maint. and also did flt. inspections. His wife Elizabeth, is still living in Florida, but will enter a hospice facility today (8-23-2010).

  5. I worked for National Airlines between 1967 until 1981, it was the best job I ever had. I worked in Miami at the reservation center. Many Saturdays I would be running late and would park in Bub Maytags spot…when if ever on Saturday he would arrive and they all knew it woudl be me…loved it…

  6. Actually Key Air did have the “sunburst” for the short time they were in business before it going to Southeast, though they kept it as one color and not orange and yellow. I used to have something with that on it son’t know if I still do, but I went to EWR when they flew out of there just to see the plane. Wish I took a pic of it ūüôĀ

  7. anyone have the “Fly Me” Susie Barnette pictures?

  8. My Dad was a pilot for 37 years with National Airlines !! It did great things for our Sunshine state and our National Airline Family.

  9. key in savannah ga did have the sunburst from NAL for a long time.


  10. National airlines brings back very pleasant
    memories.. Our life style was so interesting
    in those years.. Flight attendants were so attractive, and made every flight an adventure.
    If only I could bring back those positive years!

  11. My Father, who was Vice President of National Airlines just before he passed away at age 61 in 1975, was Chief Pilot for National for many years. His cockpit crew flew the very first domestic-jet passenger service flight from NYC-MIA on December 10, 1958.

  12. My Dad and my stepmother worked for many years with National in NYC, PHL, FLL and MIA. I grew up flying on many “Sun King” flights and remember when National promoted the new “DC-10” with free flights that lasted about 20 minutes.
    National will always live on in my memory…..

  13. I was living in Switzerland ans working aa a Ski Guide.Little did I know NAL was going to change my life ……. FOREVER ! I came to Florida never having seen a male Flight Attendant. NAL just happened to be hiring F/As who spoke French and German.Right out of training I started flying MIA-CDG ( Paris ).A few years later I married a NAL F/A.We flew all of our flights TOGETHER and continued the tradition at PAA ( PanAm ) as Pursers.During this time we raised two boys,who because of the airlines got to see the world for free ! We made some life long friendships at NAL and still have reunions 3 to 4 times a year.My wife and I will soon have been married for 35 years,and though my wife retired from PAA ,I’m still flying ( DAL ) ,soon going on 40 years ! I will forever be indebted to NAL

  14. My life too was forever changed by National Airlines! I was a stewardess that flew my 1st trip
    on Dec 25, 1970. I met an operations agent that
    day in JAX that became my husband in 1972!
    I flew only until 1974 when we started our family.
    My husband Jay continued with National, then
    Pan Am, & then United. We are going to celebrate
    our 41st wedding anniversary this year! We will
    always have fond memories of our wonderful
    airline!

  15. My wife and I lived with her Brother, Howard Dermott in North Miami in the 1969 time frame while I was attending School in Miami. He had a house on Biscayne Bay and we had many National employees using his pool as well as Playboy folks!! The Playboy yacht was tied up there for several months.
    The view was something special. However my wife was not pleased with the Girls using the pool.
    This was a great Airlines!!
    Donald Kuschel

  16. I lived in Opa Locka from 1969-1978. My Father Norman E. Dixon, was a Captain for National and flew from 1950-1978. My Mother, Mary Ann Dixon was a flight attendant from the 1940’s to 1954.

    My Father told me about flying to Havana, and that on a couple occasions in the late 1950’s he and his crew got stuck at the the airport in Havana because Castro’s troops were shelling the airport. Regardless of a few bad things that occurred, Miami was a special city back then and National was an airline like no other. It’s unfortunate that the golden age of airline travel is long gone.

  17. My first experience flying as a little boy in the late 70’s was on a National DC-10 from New York to Florida. It’s hard to believe that such a great airline could just disappear, forever. There was nothing like that wide-body service from NY to FL, so unlike the cramped service today. It’s exciting to see Eastern Airlines resurrect itself. Wouldn’t it be great to see that SunKing logo in the sky again?

  18. I remember they flew into Norfolk back in the day along with United and Piedmont……………

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