Southern Airways began its life operating propellor-driven equipment around its route system which covered the south central portion of the U.S. By 1968, Southern's route system extended from its most northerly stop at the Bristol-Kingsport-Johnson City (Tri-Cities) airport in Tennessee southward to its most southerly points at New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida. The westward boundaries of Southern's route system were marked by Baton Rouge and Monroe, Louisiana. Routes extended eastward to the Atlantic Ocean at Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina.
Southern did not operate turboprop aircraft as a transition from propellor equipment to pure jets, as other airlines did. Southern was the only airline to transition from propellor-driven equipment to jet aircraft without utilizing the intermediate turboprops. By the beginning of the 1970's, Southern was flying 75 and 95 passenger DC-9 jets and 40-passenger Martin 404 propellor equipment.
By 1971, Southern was operating flights into New York and Chicago and as far south as Orlando and Miami. Because U.S. Government regulation of airline routes prohibited Southern from operating flights from New York or Washington, D.C. nonstop to Atlanta, an unusual route developed which provided multiple daily flights from New York to Washington and then nonstop to Columbus, Georgia, then on to Dothan, Alabama; Mobile, Alabama; Eglin AFB, Florida; and/or Gulfport/Biloxi, Mississippi. Southern remained a regional airline in character, and flights with up to five or six stops were frequently found in their published schedules.
With increasing acquisitions of DC-9 jet aircraft, many routes which were once served with prop equipment were served with jets. This linked smaller communities to each other with full-size jet equipment and provided jet transportation to major airline hubs at Altanta and Memphis, sometimes with multiple stops. Some examples of these unusual nonstop jet routes include:
By the mid 1970's, Southern's route system had expanded significantly to include St. Louis, Detroit, Ft. Lauderdale, and Grand Cayman, which would be Southern's only international destination.
Southern Airways billed itself as the "Route of the Aristocrats." Southern was famous for its promotional shot glasses. For a time, a differently designed shot glass was issued each year. Original Southern shot glasses are valued by collectors of the airline's memorabilia.
By the late 1970's, Southern Airways had begun to experience difficulties. Two tragic accidents with fatalities blighted the airline's otherwise excellent safety record, and improved highways and an increasing willingness among airline passengers to drive to airports farther away for more convenient flights made many of Southern's routes obsolete. With dramatic increases in the price of jet fuel in the 1970's, operation of many of Southern's routes was no longer cost-effective.
In the late 1970's, Southern merged with Republic Airlines, and the Route of the Aristocrats came to an end.