Faces of Black Excellence November 23, 2019 at 10:30 am

Meet Michael Hollis; the first African-American to own an airline at age 27

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

Michael Eli Dokosi November 23, 2019 at 10:30 am

November 23, 2019 at 10:30 am | Faces of Black Excellence

Michael Hollis via Photo AJC file

At 27 years, attorney Michael Hollis incorporated Air Atlanta in 1981 with the first flight being operated on February 1, 1984 using a Boeing 727-100 jetliner.

The luxury airline was the first in the nation controlled by an African-American with Daniel Kolber. Air Atlanta’s first scheduled route was Atlanta-Memphis growing to serve over a dozen cities from its hub in Atlanta.

Besides operating point to point service as an independent air carrier, it also provided passenger feed for Pan American World Airways as “Air Atlanta Pan Am Express”, connecting Pan Am passengers to and from flights operated by Air Atlanta.

A brilliant mind even while a youth, Hollis was head of the Atlanta Youth Congress at 15, and at the same time worked on the mayoral campaign of Sam Massell, who later appointed him to a community-relations commission that helped address race. The former Atlanta mayor said of him: “He was a boy wonder and helped us understand issues just surfacing in that area.”

Even before Hollis graduated from the Booker T. Washington High School, he had been selected as a Georgia delegate to the White House Conference on Youth and spearheaded the organization of Young Atlantans for Maynard Jackson when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1969, before he was elected mayor.

A 1985 Atlanta Journal article noted Mr. Hollis as having attended the Dartmouth College, where he graduated with honors, then to the University of Virginia School of Law, where he became the first black national president of the 30,000-member student division of the American Bar Association.

After school and back to Atlanta, he handled a project given him by President Jimmy Carter and then became vice president for public finance at the New York investment firm Oppenheimer & Co., which he left in 1983. By 1984, three years after he incorporated the airline, planes were in the air.

An Air Atlanta Boeing 727 at Miami International Airport in 1987 via Wikimedia Commons.

By April 1, 1984, nonstop 727 service was being operated Atlanta-Memphis, Atlanta-Miami and Atlanta-New York JFK Airport. By July 1, 1985, Atlanta-New York LaGuardia Airport nonstop service had been added as well. The airline subsequently introduced service to Detroit, Fort Myers, Greenbrier/Lewisburg, WV, New Orleans, Orlando, Philadelphia, Tampa and Washington, D.C. National Airport.

When Air Atlanta initially began service, every seat was a first class seat with meals served on white linen, fine China and crystal. Air Atlanta then introduced two class service on its Boeing 727 aircraft with 2-2 seating in first class and 2-3 seating in coach with the latter cabin usually being configured with 3-3 seating by most other air carriers that operated the 727. Air Atlanta had a perfect safety record and was responsible for many innovations in the airline industry not least financing its operations through the use of the zero coupon convertible note.

The airline flew three million passengers before it shut down on April 2, 1987 when it filed for bankruptcy.

According to Mr. Kolber, business partner and friend, when the airline shuttered; “he did so much more after Air Atlanta.”

After Air Atlanta, Hollis formed a broadcasting company, helped establish a petroleum company, launched a debt-collections company and then dedicated himself to saving the Grady Memorial Hospital he was born at from collapse.

“And his work with Grady was near and dear to his heart,” Mr. Kolber rendered. Mr. Hollis served on both the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority and the hospital board.

Beyond the hospital, he was a founding trustee of Clark Atlanta University and served as a member of the Emory University Board of Visitors.

His brother, Julius H. Hollis noted “(he was) a gifted entrepreneur who could apply his skill sets in variety of industries,” adding his brother created opportunities for others “through business, government and academic pursuits.”

Hollis and his brother Julius Hollis formed a partnership with JP Morgan Chase – Nevis Securities.

Hollis also started and sold Hanover Credit Co. He also started Blue Sky Petroleum Co. with his brother, the late James B. Arnold. They owned dozens of convenience and petroleum retail stores in metro Atlanta.

Hollis founded Hollis Communications with Atlanta builder H.J. Russell. The pair owned a radio station that was later sold to Cox Enterprises.

On what drove him to excel so much, Kolber submitted: “He believed in himself, and had a lot of self-confidence,” adding, “He wasn’t afraid of rejection. Every time he got a ‘no’ he felt like that was one more ‘no’ closer to a ‘yes.’”

Hollis, of Douglasville, died at his home of complications related to pancreatic cancer aged 58.

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