The commercial aviation business is notoriously difficult to succeed at. There’s no better example of how not to do it than the Florida-based carrier Sunair which lasted only 24 hours and flew just a single flight.
As records go, Sunair is likely to hold that for the shortest-lived airline in history. Plagued by poor planning and insufficient finances, the operator faded into obscurity about as quickly as it had materialised.
The firm was founded in 1980 by Fort Lauderdale accountant Wayne Lackey, who had ambitious plans to operate a fleet of brand-new Swearingen Metroliners to 15 different cities across the state. Confident of this strategy, Lackey quickly printed timetables with the first day of service planned for January 15, 1981.
Billing itself as “The number one way to fly Florida”, the company generated a lot of interest and publicity just after its inception. The Miami Herald at the time reported that the airline had hired 400 employees even before it purchased its first aircraft.
The first major stumbling block for the airline was with the purchase of aircraft. More than a month after it was supposed to have begun flights, the carrier still hadn’t acquired any aircraft. In an article in Florida Today on February 27, 1981, airline executives were quoted to have said they “hope to have one aircraft operating next week”.
Sunair – which originally wanted to buy four new Metroliners – had only signed a contract with the manufacturer for two examples. According to the company, it had a pair of aircraft “ready to go on contract date, December 22, 1980”.
“We don’t know why Sunair didn’t want to pay for them,” a spokesperson for the airframer told the paper.
The airline said it did not want to buy the Swearingen aircraft because it wanted four examples and the company could only sell it two within the timeframe it required.
In what seems like a panic move, the carrier decided to ditch the type altogether and go for a Brazilian-built Embraer EMB 110 Bandeirante – leaving behind the pressurised and faster alternative.
The single airframe, N227CH (c/n 110206) was delivered to the airline in March 1981, on lease from Charlie Hammonds Flying Service (now Hammonds Air Service) – a Fixed Base Operator in Louisiana.
The Big Day
On the first and only day of service, March 17, 1981, Lackey reportedly gave the pilot a wad of cash and instructed him to fly until the money ran out. The airline supposedly operated just a single flight between Fort Myers and Miami before it exhausted its cash supply.
“Sunair is undergoing a reorganisation,” Richard Buch, a spokesperson for the carrier told Florida Today on the day.
After missing deadlines and cancelling hundreds of reservations, the airline closed its doors following the flight, leaving behind debts of over one million dollars.
On March 27, 1981, the airline’s holding company, Sunair International filed for protection from its creditors in a US bankruptcy court in Miami.
Even at this point, Lackey was insisting that the carrier’s service had been “temporarily suspended and not abandoned,” but it seemed unlikely that the company would be able to emerge from bankruptcy with such large debts.
“No airline has ever attempted such a complex and costly undertaking from the outset. Our problems have been numerous and have been public knowledge,” he said.