New Pacific Airlines: Northern Pacific Forced To Rebrand After BNSF Injunction

  •  Northern Pacific Airways must stop using the Northern Pacific name due to a trademark infringement suit by BNSF Railway.
  •  CEO of NPA, Rob McKinney, has decided not to fight the decision in order to minimize legal disputes and focus on moving passengers and providing jobs.
  •  NPA is rebranding as New Pacific Airlines, aiming to differentiate while preserving certain elements.

If there’s one airline that can’t catch a break, it’s Northern Pacific Airways. Hamstrung by COVID restrictions, then Russian airspace closures, the airline struggled with certification and had to delay its inaugural flights. And now, as the airline is finally successfully flying regular services from Ontario, California, to Las Vegas, another hurdle has appeared in its path.

Last October, it was revealed that Texas-based rail operator BNSF Railway had filed a suit against FLOAT Alaska, Northern Pacific Airways’ parent company, for trademark infringement. Now, it seems the outcome of that action has been decided, as NPA has received a preliminary injunction and must stop using the Northern Pacific name.

The airline has a window to appeal the decision but, wisely perhaps, has decided not to fight. Speaking exclusively to Simple Flying, CEO of NPA, Rob McKinney, explained why.

With the fact being that BNSF does legally hold an existing trademark, not to mention the strength of its ownership, including Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, engaging in a legal battle as a startup airline would be an unwise move. McKinney noted that he had attempted to engage with BNSF multiple times to resolve the dispute amicably, including even writing to Buffet in person. Ultimately, the rail company preferred to handle things through the courts.

How did we get here?

“It was around a year ago when we got the notice back from the US Patent Office that they were concerned about the conflict,” Rob noted. “Our position was the mark had been abandoned.”

Indeed, according to court documents, NPA was denied the right to trademark ‘Northern Pacific Airways’ on the grounds that it may be confused with the BNSF’s use of the Northern Pacific marks. FLOAT Alaska challenged this decision, but the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) maintained its stance. FLOAT then petitioned to cancel BNSF’s marks with the United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, arguing that the mark was abandoned.

BNSF responded by initiating legal proceedings against FLOAT Alaska, maintaining that the Northern Pacific marks had never been abandoned. It says that, although the then Northern Pacific Railway merged with other railways to form the Burlington National Railroad in 1970, the mark is still in use today. According to court documents, this is limited to a handful of anniversary locomotives, re-liveried for its 25th anniversary, and the sales of various items of memorabilia.

Simple Flying approached BNSF for comment, who told us.

What’s next for NPA?

The situation now is that NPA has a preliminary injunction against using the Northern Pacific name in any of its trading. Clearly, in an industry as heavily regulated and slow-moving as aviation, an immediate cessation is just not possible. Thankfully, the airline has been given some breathing room.

Many would criticize NPA for not doing its due diligence in identifying a potential conflict of interest in the use of this historic name. McKinney explained that, yes, NPA did realize there was a freight railway with the same name from 50 years ago, but that it was deemed to be a low-risk choice.

The process of rebranding will be long and arduous. Aside from the huge job of repainting the aircraft in its fleet, the rebrand will need to extend throughout its website, ticketing platforms, marketing material and everything else. Crucially, the airline will need to wait for DOT and FAA approval before the new name becomes official. Nevertheless, the court seems understanding of the situation, and isn’t pressing for an immediate change.

Meet New Pacific Airlines

Survival is critical to NPA, whose original business model remains in tatters due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The airline is making the best of its position, launching domestic flights now to get staff and aircraft flying, and eyeing where it can go next. As such, backing off from the dispute and pressing ahead with a rebrand is the best outcome for everyone.

The airline announced today that it would be rebranding to a name not a million miles from its original one. New Pacific Airlines has already started to be used in company headers and email signatures, but its official changeover will come only with regulatory approval.

McKinney and his team put the name change out to its employees, and the team really rallied around the idea. Suggestions were sent in for new names by the hundreds, but in the end, the simplest idea won out.

For passengers, not much will be different. Tickets will change and the airline’s livery will change too, but only slightly. The big N will stay, as will the logos on the seats. If everything lines up perfectly, the rebrand could be complete as soon as four months from now, but NPA is prepared for things to take a bit longer than that.

Ultimately, the decision by NPA to pull back from appeals and drawn-out litigation is probably a wise move. Critics will certainly say that they should have seen this coming, should have taken a different pathway on their branding journey years ago. But the resilience of this startup, which has faced challenge after challenge in getting off the ground, really does show no bounds.

Even when faced with this, a seemingly impossible marketing nightmare, the NPA team keeps smiling and focused on their ultimate goal – to get passengers from A to B safely and on time. Rob McKinney concluded.

By Mian Saeed Ahmed Khan