People Express Airlines was a trailblazer in the realm of low-cost carriers that demonstrated innovation and creativity to entice travelers. Led by Don Burr, formerly of Texas International Airways, People Express Airlines debuted in 1981 with a singular mission – to offer ultra-low-cost, no-frills air travel to up-and-coming destinations. Passengers could pay cash on board instead of in advance or at the check-in desk, with additional charges levied for amenities such as baggage check-in and food and drinks on flights – a strategy still employed by contemporary low-cost carriers.
What made People Express stand out from other airlines was its markedly egalitarian structure and operations. Staff were provided with stocks in the business, making them co-owners of the airline. They also shared job roles, promoting a collaborative culture. This meant that pilots could act as baggage handlers, sales staff served at check-in counters, and finance professionals also served as flight attendants. These measures were taken to keep costs low and ensure that customers would interact with each employee, highlighting the airline’s commitment to personalized service.
Despite growing success, the incumbent major airlines weren’t pleased with People Express and took swift action to counter its popularity, slashing ticket prices to compete with their lower-priced competitor. Struggling with mounting debts, Texas Air Corporation swooped in to acquire People Express Airlines, merging it with Continental Airlines in 1987.
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