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Monday, May 3, 2010

UAL, Continental Unite ‘Fried-Chicken Era’ Carriers


The United Airlines and Continental Airlines Inc. merger reconnects corporate bloodlines that date to aviation’s “fried-chicken era” in the 1920s and 1930s.

Walter T. Varney, an entrepreneur, former World War I pilot and daredevil who once flew a biplane so low a motorcyclist could snatch a rope ladder, started the airlines’ predecessors eight years apart.

The companies went on to outlast contemporaries such as Trans World Airlines, Eastern Airlines and Pan American World Airways, and will be combined in an all-stock deal. Based on April 30 closing prices, the tie-up announced today values Continental at about $3.17 billion.

“They’re essentially merging back into themselves and bringing it full circle,” said Henry M. Holden, an aviation historian and author in Newton, New Jersey. “It’s a true coming together again for companies separated for almost a century.”

Five years after Varney began flying air mail in 1926, he hooked up with a precursor to Boeing Co. to form United, now a unit of UAL Corp. In 1934, a 530-mile (853-kilometer) flight from Colorado to El Paso, Texas, marked the debut of Varney Speed Lines, the airline that would become Continental.

Chips, Tomato

“This was aviation’s fried-chicken era,” according to “The Age of Flight,” a 2002 history of United. The poultry was an entree, accompanied by potato chips and a tomato, served on airliners that included Ford Motor Co.’s Tri-Motors.

Airlines were rushing at the time to take advantage of the speed and improving safety of air travel to build their fledgling industry. United sold Boeing, now the biggest U.S. planemaker, and in 1936 opened the first kitchen dedicated to preparing on-board meals.

Varney wasn’t around for many of those changes. He had left United by the time he founded Varney Speed Lines. He was gone from his eponymous carrier when new part-owner Bob Six adopted the Continental name in 1937, and died in 1967 at age 78.

“Varney was a serial entrepreneur with serial bad luck, and he was a millionaire after the Boeing sale, but ended up as a truck driver,” said Randy Johnson, a co-author of the 2002 book about United and a former editor of Hemispheres, the airline’s in-flight magazine. “So much of modern aviation traces to Varney, but he’s barely a footnote in history because the Varney brand didn’t survive.”