Before deregulation of the US airline market place in 1978 if you wanted to fly across the Atlantic (or indeed anywhere from or within the USA) your choice was heavily limited by the power of the Civil Aeronautics Bureau (CAB). Pan Am and TWA had an effective duopoly on long haul flights whilst a small number of supplemental airlines like ONA, TIA, Capitol and World had access to a small market of regulated charter services.
One of the enterprising ways around the regulations was to setup a travel club. These organisations in effect operated as private rather than public flights ostensibly flying only their own members. There were a variety of outfits formed in the USA, usually operating small numbers of obsolete first generation jetliners like Convair 880s or turbojet 707s and 720s. Some of the smaller ones flew piston liners or turboprop Lockheed Electras. Load factors could be as high as 95% but it was a risky business with limited funds and means plus the attention of the CAB always eager to make sure the strict rules were adhered to. Across the Atlantic the performance of the jets available to these operators meant that in the UK only Gatwick, Manchester or Prestwick were really viable destinations since they had full length runways (even then Heathrow was out of bounds).
Ambassadair Travel club was one of these pioneer travel club charter airlines, formed in 1973 by J. George Mikelsons, a Latvian immigrant, as Voyager 1000 to operate from Indianapolis. Mikelson's new airline at first had only a single aircraft - a former Eastern Air Lines Boeing 720-025 named 'Miss Indy'. This aircraft had been delivered as N8711E to Eastern in January 1962 and returned to Boeing in June 1970. She was never upgraded to a turbofan 720B and instead joined the German charter airline Calair in December 1970 until being returned to Boeing in March 1972. She then saw 6 months service with AeroAmerica before joining Ambassadair.
Ambassadair could only fly paid up members of its club so its staff solicited members via telephone campaigns, hotel seminars and such. Mikkelsons as well as being CEO also flew the aircraft and unloaded baggage. It was far from easy and he recalled one trip out to Hawaii where he only had enough money to fuel the outward journey. Fortunately a flurry of new membership fees in that day's mail kept the fledgling airline afloat.
Throughout the 1970s Ambassadair could only continue to build its business as a travel club although bookings were good enough for it to acquire a second 720 (N8790R 'Spirit of Indiana') in November 1978. By then the landscape of the US airline scene was changing and deregulation was beginning to take-off. In March 1981 the airline gained its common carrier certification, which enabled it to operate as a proper airline flying public charter flights (although still at this stage not scheduled services). Still small it was nonetheless large by travel club standards and one of the few to survive until deregulation.
The issuance of charter rights coincided with a renaming to American Trans Air. It was goodbye also to the venerable Boeing 720s, which were replaced by only marginally more efficient Boeing 707-123Bs, which at least were equipped with turbofans. Five aircraft joined from American Airlines between March 1980 and April 1982 and were swiftly followed by 3 ex-American Airlines 707-323Cs from September 1982. In 1984 Amtran. Inc was formed to cater as the holding company for the still existing Ambassadair Travel club and the airline component.
It was the arrival in February 1983 of an ex-Laker DC-10-10 that really elevated ATA into the bigger leagues. N183AT, the ex-G-BELO, was appropriately named 'City of Indianapolis'. She was joined in June 1984 by a second DC-10, this time an ex-Northwest Airlines DC-10-40, which became N184AT. This aircraft had joined Northwest in February 1973 as N142US.
The DC-10s could regularly be seen operating across the Atlantic to Gatwick. Passenger numbers ballooned from only 96,426 in 1981 to 618,532 in 1983. ATA seemingly expected to acquire additional DC-10s from Northwest but in the event they decided to keep their DC-10s and ATA found itself struggling to source further units for itself.
This necessitated a change of direction for the airline, which switched to more easily acquired Lockheed L-1011 Tristar. Nine ex-Delta Tristar 50s joined the fleet in 1985. All the 707s were gone by the end of 1984 whilst the ex-Laker DC-10-10 went to Air Hawaii at the end of 1985. N184AT remained in the fleet but was destroyed on August, 10 1986 at Chicago O'Hare.
The aircraft was being unloaded following a charter flight but unfortunately maintenance personnel had put damaged passenger seatbacks (including their solid-state chemical oxygen generators) in the forward cargo hold along with seat covers and oil. A company mechanic looking through the seatbacks accidentally set off a loose oxygen generator, which generated a 430 degree C heat igniting the hld's contents and burning through the cabin floor. The aircraft was subsequently destroyed in the resulting fire leaving an aircraft which looked essentially complete from the outside except for the missing burnt off fuselage top! Fortunately there were no injuries or fatalities due to the accident.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: