Kenny Friedkin founded the airline in 1949 with a $1,000-a-month leased Douglas DC-3. Friedkin obtained information from a travel agent upon starting the airline due to lessons learned from a failed precursor airline (Friedkin Airlines). The DC-3 inaugurated a weekly round trip from San Diego to Oakland via Burbank. Reservations were initially taken from a World War II surplus latrine refitted as a ticket office. In 1951, PSA flights moved from Oakland to San Francisco International Airport. By 1953, the airline had returned to Oakland (OAK) and was continuing to serve San Francisco (SFO), Burbank (BUR) and San Diego (SAN) as well. In 1955 PSA bought two Douglas DC-4s from Capital Airlines and painted boxes around the windows to make the planes resemble the Douglas DC-6.
In January 1958, it scheduled 37 DC-4s a week Burbank to San Francisco (29 of which originated in San Diego) and four nonstop flights San Diego to San Francisco; the fare from Burbank to San Francisco was $9.99. United Airlines, Western Airlines and TWA at that time were operating a combined total of 241 nonstop flights each week from Los Angeles to San Francisco with 49 flights a week being operated from Burbank to San Francisco. About half of these flights operated by the competition were First Class only ($22.05); the rest carried coach passengers for $13.50 (all fares operated by interstate air carriers were subject to 10% federal tax.) Later in 1958 PSA shifted some flights from Burbank to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX); that year it carried 296,000 passengers.
In late 1959 PSA began flying Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprops configured with 92 seats and a six-seat lounge, replacing 70-seat DC-4s. Boeing 727-114s, Boeing 727-214s, Boeing 737-214s and McDonnell Douglas DC-9-30s replaced the Electras in 1966–70. The May 1965 OAG shows 103 Electras a week from Los Angeles (LAX) to San Francisco (SFO), 32 a week from Los Angeles to Oakland (OAK), 34 a week from Burbank (BUR) to San Francisco and 5 a week from San Diego (SAN) to San Francisco. En route flying time between Los Angeles and San Francisco was scheduled for 60 minutes while Burbank-San Francisco was 55 minutes. In 1966 PSA started flying to San Jose (SJC), and in 1967 to Sacramento Executive Airport (SAC); later that year PSA and other airlines moved to the new Sacramento International Airport (SMF). Ontario (ONT) was added in 1968 and Long Beach (LGB), Fresno (FAT) and Stockton (SCK) in 1971–72. Starting in 1974 PSA briefly operated several wide body Lockheed L-1011 TriStar jetliners until 1976 before deeming them unprofitable and parking them. PSA's L-1011-1s were unique in having lower deck seating. The L-1011s flew intrastate routings of Los Angeles-San Francisco, Los Angeles-San Francisco-Sacramento and San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco. PSA was the only intrastate airline in the U.S. ever to operate wide body jetliners. Electras returned in 1975 for flights to Lake Tahoe (TVL) that ended in 1979. (Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, did not allow airline jets until the 1980s although Pacific Air Lines briefly operated Boeing 727-100s into Lake Tahoe in 1966.) Major intrastate competitor Air California also flew Electras to Lake Tahoe until 1979–80 but then returned to Lake Tahoe as AirCal with McDonnell Douglas MD-80s and Boeing 737-300s after the jet ban ended. PSA never again served Lake Tahoe after retiring its Electras.
After airline deregulation, PSA expanded beyond California to Reno (RNO), Las Vegas (LAS), Salt Lake City (SLC), Phoenix (PHX), Tucson (TUS) and Albuquerque (ABQ). Its first flight beyond California was Oakland to Reno in December 1978. The airline introduced automated ticketing and check-in machines at several airports and briefly flew to Cabo San Lucas (SJD) in Mexico. When PSA's plan to buy the assets of Braniff International Airways fell through, the airline expanded its network north to Washington, Oregon and Idaho. PSA operated new British Aerospace BAe 146-200 jets to smaller airports like Eureka, California (ACV) and Concord, California (CCR). PSA held a "Name the Plane" contest, publicized in full-page newspaper advertisements, to name the fleet, with the prize being a private flight for the winner and 99 friends. The winning entry was Smiliner submitted by Dr. Hugh Jordan of Whittier, California.
Revenue Passenger-Miles/Kilometers, in millions
Source: Air Transport World
In 1986 Western and AirCal were purchased (by Delta Air Lines and American Airlines respectively).
An hour after the AirCal deal was announced PSA agreed to merge with USAir, which was completed in 1987. At the time, PSA was in talks with Boeing about acquiring a Boeing 757-200, but never ordered it. PSA's last flight was on April 8, 1988. The PSA route network slowly disintegrated within USAir and was gone by 1994. Most of the former airline's assets were scrapped or moved to USAir's hubs on the East Coast. PSA's base at San Diego International Airport was gutted and served for a time as that airport's commuter terminal, before being renovated in administrative offices. PSA had planned to become a nationwide carrier, but this never came to fruition. By the time of the merger, PSA's route system covered the western United States as far east as Colorado and New Mexico, and as far north as Washington state.
In the San Diego Aerospace Museum a display showcases PSA, the city's home town airline.
PSA was one of the sponsors of The Dating Game TV show on ABC from 1965 to 1973.
After the 2005 merger of US Airways and America West, a US Airways Airbus A319 was repainted in PSA's livery as one of four heritage aircraft commemorating the airlines that had merged to form the present-day US Airways. The aircraft was dedicated at San Diego International Airport's former commuter terminal (PSA's former operations base) on March 30, 2006, and flew routes similar to PSA's.