PEOPLExpress Airlines (1981-1987). Here's how Homer Simpson put it: "It all happened during the magical summer of 1985. A maturing Joe Piscopo left Saturday Night Live to conquer Hollywood; PEOPLExpress introduced a generation of hicks to plane travel; and I was in a barbershop quartet."
A no-frills carrier, PEOPLExpress charged you $3.00 per checked bag and catered to the masses. That is, until they'd taken on so much debt they couldn't survive on what the masses were willing to pay. By 1985, through many mergers, PEOPLExpress was the United States' fifth-largest airline, and even offered a flight to Brussels. A First Class cabin was added, a frequent-flyer program was started, and a more traditional pricing model was adopted. This didn't work out. Continental absorbed PEOPLExpress operations on February 1, 1987.
Freelandia Air Travel Club (1973-74). The brainchild of Ken Moss, a 31-year-old Syracuse dropout, Freelandia enticed passengers with promises of low-cost travel, natural food, an in-flight waterbed, and a hopeful slogan ("Not-For-Profit").
For an initial membership fee of $50, you were eligible for too-good-to-be-true fares. After Moss appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, membership quadrupled, to 8,000. The members grew frustrated by Freelandia's staggering performance record: 85% of flights were canceled. And they only ever had two planes. The Air Travel Club was grounded for good before its first birthday.
Trump Shuttle (1989-1992). In 1988, Eastern Airlines sold its northeastern routes to Donald Trump for $365 million. Trump did as Trump does -- classed up the place with fancy chrome seatbelt latches and gold bathroom fixtures. They offered laptop rentals to passengers and were among the first to allow self-service check-in at kiosks.
But this was not a great time to be in the airline business. The run-up to the first Gulf War sent fuel costs soaring, and the U.S. was in the midst of a recession. Trump Shuttle could never turn a profit, defaulted on its loans, and ceased to exist in April 1992. Its routes were served by USAir Shuttle, whose parent company purchased a 40% stake in what was left.
Other airlines I learned about while writing this post: U-Land Airways (Taiwan), Wizz Air (Hungary), Flybaboo (Switzerland), and Buddha Air (Nepal). If you've got a story about a defunct or oddly named airline, I'd love to hear it.