Like Eastern, TWA and Pan Am before it, Independence Air flew into the history books Thursday night.
Teary-eyed airline employees shared hugs behind the counter at Washington Dulles International Airport after turning in their ID badges and waiting for the final flights to touch down.
Cheryll Butler, an Independence Air ticket agent, said passengers have been bringing the workers bouquets of flowers and other tokens of affection in the four days since the bankrupt airline announced it was going out of business.
"It was very tense today," said Butler.
Thousands of phone messages and e-mails have come into the company's headquarters since the shutdown announcement was made Monday, said airline spokesman Rick DiLisi.
"Almost all of them say the same thing, which is, 'we're really sorry that you're leaving and we enjoyed flying with you.' We feel the same way," said DiLisi, one of about 2,600 Independence Air workers facing unemployment.
The airline's last takeoff was shortly after 7:30 p.m. from White Plains, N.Y. The last arrival at Washington Dulles International Airport, from Tampa, Fla., touched down just after 9 p.m.
That left the carrier's fleet of 42 planes — 12 132-seat Airbus A-319 jetliners and 30 smaller 50-seat Bombardier CRJ jets — at Dulles. At its peak, the Independence Air operated about 87 aircraft.
Passengers on the final flights arriving at Dulles said onboard attendants tried to keep the mood upbeat.
Tom Florestano of Reston, Va., said flight attendants on his plane from Fort Myers, Fla., were playing games with passengers, such as having them guess the number of hours the pilot had logged in the past year. They gave away hats as prizes.
Independence Air began nearly 19 months ago as former executives from Atlantic Coast Airlines tried to turn a contract carrier for Delta and United into a discount airline that would eventually serve 36 markets from its Dulles hub. Parent company FLYi, Inc., filed for bankruptcy Nov. 7.
Planes operated at 50-75 percent of capacity on many routes this week, as the airline worked to accommodate ticket holders.
Passenger Shirley Blaes, a retired teacher, was headed back to Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina from Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn. She said she flew Independence Air for the first time to visit her children for the holidays.
"I thought it was really very nice," she said. "Everything went right on time. The people were very friendly."
In between checking in passengers for a flight to Dulles on Thursday, four employees at Bradley posed for photographs in front of the Independence Air sign.
"It's a very sad day," said Deb Dusseault. "Everybody's so sad. That's a good thing, I guess. At least we were well-received."
"It's a shame because we offered a real good product," added coworker Pete Huckabee.
Analysts said Thursday that high fuel costs and low passenger loads in the months preceding the bankruptcy filing prompted the company to reduce its ambitious flight schedule. Some markets that once had a dozen or more flights each day were served by only a few flights in recent days.
"We're losing an airline that brought super low fares to America," said Tom Parsons, president of Dallas-based Bestfares.com. "Those super low fares put them into bankruptcy, too."
He predicted that markets not served by discount carriers jetBlue, Spirit, AirTran or Southwest will be among the first cities formerly served by Independence Air to see significant air fare increases.
"From Charleston, S.C., to Portland, Maine, those folks are going to wish for Independence Air to be back," said Parsons, who predicts some fares will double.
Over the next few weeks, about 180 employees will work to liquidate or secure the company's assets. At Dulles, that will involve cleaning out equipment at 35 gates and 18 ticket counters. Some of those jobs could last up to six months.
On Friday, some former employees will attend a job fair at the company's Dulles headquarters.