Avis paved the way for airport rental-car industry

Warren Avis' travel frustrations led to a novel

Warren Avis' travel frustrations led to a novel concept: rent a car when you land at an airport, and return it when you fly home. Simple. Today it's called ground transportation. (Credit: Wheelbase Media / Adam Young )

You take it for granted today, but back then there was a man who was just plain frustrated about the waiting . . . and the walking.

Warren Avis landed at airports across the United States and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Sometimes he would have to walk for miles from the airport terminal before he would find a ride to pick him up.

Airport ground transportation? Unthinkable.


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Rental car companies? Never heard of 'em.

And if you wonder how Avis, the man, created Avis, the car-rental giant, you only need to look back to the early 1940s to see one frustrated man with a brilliant idea.

Capt. Warren Avis, a military pilot in World War II, knew something about air travel and he knew something about cars.

As a Ford dealer in suburban Detroit,  Avis valued customer service and he knew a bad deal when he saw one. So, naturally, as a pilot, Avis continually became frustrated when ground transportation was not available at airports when he returned home from missions overseas.

After the war, he realized other travelers thought the same way.

He had a solution -- car rentals.

Although Hertz was already offering a transportation service, its branches were located in major cities, but not at their airports, which were often in the middle of nowhere.

Avis was among the first to foresee the rapid development of commercial aviation following World War II. He reasoned that the growth in air travel would lead to a need for some means of transportation once people had landed at their destinations.

So, before Christmas in late December of 1946, with $10,000 of his own money and $75,000 borrowed against his name, Avis began his car rental business: Avis Airlines Rent-a-Car System. The company was the world's first car rental operation located inside the boundaries of an airport. Almost simultaneously, an Avis location opened at Miami International Airport, then the country's busiest rent-a-car market.

He wouldn't know it, but Avis was about to lay the groundwork for an entire industry.

Business and vacation travelers went crazy.

The idea of a national airport rental-car system was a valid one.

But could it be that simple? Step off a plane and rent a car, then return it at some point in the future to the same location? The simplicity of the idea was ingenious. Could it work?

Avis expanded his business at a steady pace primarily by licensing local independent operators to do business under the Avis name at airports. New York, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, Los Angeles and Houston soon joined the Avis System.

By 1948, system operations were opening in downtown locations to serve hotels and office buildings and the word "Airlines" was dropped from the company's name.

By 1953, Avis launched franchise operations of Avis in Europe, Canada and Mexico.

"I didn't think it was anything other than giving the customer an option I never had as a traveler," Avis once said.

But Avis went one step further, introducing a number of innovative business practices that would also help the industry. He would pioneer national franchise licensing, corporate credit cards and better customer service practices. All of these business firsts became the gold standard in the industry.

Interestingly, Avis himself wouldn't last long in the industry he helped develop.

In 1954, he sold the company to a Boston, Mass.-based financier and the owner of U-Drivit Corporation, a car rental company, for $8 million.

Subsequently, that company opened a number of outlets throughout the United States and introduced the innovative concept of a nationwide one-way car rental system. Customers could rent a car at one place and leave it at their destination with no need to return it.

From the 1950s on, Avis changed hands many times as it was repeatedly sold and bought by a number of companies. In addition, the company entered into alliances with other car-rental companies in England, Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland and Scotland.

In 1973, Avis launched its innovative Wizard reservation system, the company's cornerstone technology.

The company continued to change ownership through the 1970s and '80s, becoming employee-owned in 1987. That same year, Avis introduced the Roving Rapid Return, a handheld computer terminal allowing customers to bypass the Avis counter. In 2000, the company introduced Avis Interactive, the first Internet-based reporting system in the car-rental industry.

Two locations became 4,200 locations in 160 countries.

And as for Mr. Avis? He faded away . . . almost.

In 1985, he joined a group of investors who wanted to buy Avis Inc. from Beatrice Companies, which put it up for sale. But the price had jumped to $400 million.

He eventually turned it down. He didn't need the hassle.

His legacy was already cemented in every rental counter at every airport in virtually every city in the world.

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