September 18, 2023

BNSF Railway compels new airline to change name in trademark dispute


Class I railroad BNSF has forced a small startup airline to change its name over a trademark issue.

A federal court last month ordered Northern Pacific Airways to stop using the name because it infringed on the brand names of predecessors to the BNSF Railway Co. In response, parent company Float Alaska recently said the airline intends to call itself New Pacific Airlines, pending approval of the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

The dispute centers on the history of the Northern Pacific Railway, which merged with three other railroads to form the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1970 after decades of closely affiliated operations. In 1996, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway combined to form BNSF.

The U.S. Patent Office rejected the registration of the Northern Pacific Airways name because of likely confusion with BNSF’s brand mark, according to court documents. Float petitioned for cancellation of the BNSF marks, alleging that the railroad had abandoned them. 

BNSF, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, sued Float Alaska last October to stop using its trademark. It argued that it still uses the trademark name on various locomotives and train cars, its website and informational material to celebrate its heritage. 

Judge Marc Scarsi of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted BNSF’s request for a preliminary injunction to cease using the Northern Pacific name after determining that Float Alaska had little chance of winning if it proceeded to trial.

Anchorage, Alaska-based Northern Pacific will now have to pay to change the livery on its four used Boeing 757 jets, which it acquired from American Airlines, as well as make changes to its website and other promotional material. So far it is operating one aircraft, with a second one scheduled to join the fleet in November. A third plane is expected to be ready by year’s end.

CEO Rob McKinney said he wrote to Buffett personally to resolve the matter, to no avail, the Simple Flying website reported.

It’s been a rocky start for Northern Pacific Airways. The COVID pandemic and then Russia’s closure of airspace to Western airlines following the invasion of Ukraine derailed Northern Pacific Airways’ original plan to operate low-cost flights to Asia with a refueling stop in Anchorage. The decision to switch to a new name comes two months after the start of commercial domestic business undertaken as a fallback to international service. 

The airline in mid-July began weekend flights from Ontario International Airport in Southern California to Las Vegas following a lengthy wait to obtain certification for domestic operations. It plans to begin twice-weekly service to Reno, Nevada, and Nashville, Tennessee, from Ontario and add a second Las Vegas frequency in November, according to the company.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Eric Kulisch.

Contact Reporter: [email protected] 

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