Where Do Airline Trademarks Go When Grounded?

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Airline acquisitions/mergers have been a relatively common occurrence. Most recently, in 2016, Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America. This was just another acquisition in a long line of airline acquisitions, and with each acquisition, questions arise as to what happens with trademarks associated with the airline being acquired. With the Virgin America acquisition, Alaska Airlines has recently announced that it intends to stop use of the Virgin America name and logo by 2019. Under U.S. trademark law, a mark generally goes abandoned and is free to use by others, if use has been discontinued (usually for at least 3 consecutive years) and the owner cannot demonstrate intent to resume use. Given that Alaska Airlines does not intend to continue use of the Virgin America mark, this indicates that perhaps as early as 2022, the Virgin America trademark may go abandoned. This leads to the question - what has happened with trademarks associated with previously acquired airlines? In the case of Continental Airlines, its marks appear to have been “grounded.” Continental Airlines announced a merger with UAL Corporation, the parent company of United Airlines, in May 2010. Integration of the airlines was completed in March 2012, and according to the U.S. trademark records, all registrations for CONTINENTAL AIRLINES have expired with the exception of one registration, which is not yet up for renewal. But given that the other marks have expired, one would expect that this active registration will go the way of the expired marks. Yet, when an acquisition/merger occurs, the marks of the acquired company are not always “grounded” as one might expect.

For example, ValuJet Airlines bought AirTran Airlines in 1997, yet retained the AirTran name (and the trademarks associated with it). On its face, this appears to be strange, especially as AirTran was a much smaller, regional airline; however, this acquisition occurred following the crash of Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades. In this case, the negative publicity associated with the ValuJet name may have led to increased value for the AirTran trademarks in the acquisition.

Even in the case of an airline ceasing operations, the trademarks associated with the brand do not always go away. For example, Braniff Airways was an American airline that operated from 1928 until 1982. While most of the marks originally used in connection with the airline have expired or gone abandoned, a series of new Braniff companies were incorporated in Oklahoma, for historical purposes and for administration of the Braniff trademarks, copyrights and other intellectual property. When these companies were incorporated, Braniff Airways, Incorporated began re-registering many of the marks including BRANIFF INTERNATIONAL, BRANIFF GETS YOU THERE WITH FLYING COLORS, and the BI logo.

All of these examples indicate that an airline “grounding,” whether by merger, acquisition or cessation of operations, does not necessarily mean the end of trademark protection in connection with the airline. As the Alaska Airlines acquisition of Virgin America continues, we will have to see whether the Virgin America trademarks find new flight.

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For more information on this topic, please visit our Trademark and Brand Management service page, which is part of our Trademark Practice.

Klemchuk LLP is an Intellectual Property (IP), Technology, Internet, and Business law firm located in Dallas, TX.  The firm offers comprehensive legal services including litigation and enforcement of all forms of IP as well as registration and licensing of patents, trademarks, trade dress, and copyrights.  The firm also provides a wide range of technology, Internet, e-commerce, and business services including business planning, formation, and financing, mergers and acquisitions, business litigation, data privacy, and domain name dispute resolution. Additional information about the trademark law firm and its trademark attorneys may be found at www.klemchuk.com.

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