Saturday, June 18, 2011

We’ll Never See its Likes Again

Just over ten years ago, one of the most storied names in aviation disappeared forever. It was April 9, 2001, an inappropriately sunny day for a wake in St. Louis. Thousands of employees gathered in a cavernous hangar, many wearing the “Two Great Airlines, One Great Future” ballcaps being handed out at the entrance. Burgers and brats were consumed en masse. A Boeing 777 and a Lockheed Constellation stood just outside the hangar, nose-to-nose, and many toured these pinnacles of their respective ages. It was a bittersweet day. Nobody but the bean counters really wanted the merger, but most thought it was a better outcome than liquidation, a real possibility considering the airline’s meager and waning cash reserves. A thousand miles away, Mohammed Atta and his compatriots were preparing the attack that would put the vast majority of these people out of work and turn STL into a virtual ghost town, but nobody knew that at the time.

Transcontinental and Western Airlines was itself the product of a 1930 merger between Transcontinental Air Transport and Western Air Express. T&WA inherited a transcontinental route structure from TAT, and a visionary named Jack Frye from Western Air Express. Frye was the man who delivered to Douglas Airlines the specifications for the DC-1, and later the DC-2 and DC-3. In 1939, Howard Hughes invested in the airline, later becoming the majority owner. Hughes ordered the fleet of Lockheed Constellations that would make the new Trans World Airlines moniker no great exaggeration. Overseas expansion began after WW2 and continued steadily for 40 years.

TWA was late in ordering jets at the end of the 1950s but they did become the first all-jet airline with the retirement of the Connies in 1967. Two years later, TWA surpassed PanAm in transatlantic traffic and opened Pacific routes to create a true round-the-world route structure. In the 1970s, they developed an extensive intra-Europe network using B727s, even maintaining pilot bases in major European cities. As one of the most visible American symbols abroad, they became a favorite target of terrorist hijackers and bombers through the 1970s and into the 1980s. By 1988, TWA was carrying over 50% of all transatlantic passengers.

It was a dominance that would not last long. Deregulation and the LBO craze of the 1980s turned TWA into a target for corporate raiders. In 1985, unwanted attention from Frank Lorenzo drove the board of directors into the arms of Carl Icahn. He turned out to be every bit as destructive a force as Lorenzo. Icahn sold off TWA’s most valuable assets to competitors, in particular their prized London route authorities to American Airlines. Icahn financed a 1986 purchase of Ozark Airlines by selling their fleet of DC-9s to lessors, then torpedoed the intra-Europe route structure in 1989 by signing DC-9 leases that prohibited operation outside the continental United States.

Icahn wasn’t ousted until 1993, by which time he had transferred hundreds of millions of dollars from TWA into his own accounts. It took a bankruptcy to get rid of him, as well as a poisonous deal that would ultimately contribute to TWA’s downfall. TWA agreed to sell Icahn’s Karibu Corporation an unlimited number of tickets at 45% off the lowest published fare for ten years, excluding tickets originating or terminating in STL. It was a bitter pill to swallow in 1993, and became even more punishing in subsequent years as internet-based ticket sales soared. Icahn sold the tickets through, and TWA could not compete. Karibu cost them an estimated $150 million per year. TWA went into bankruptcy a second time in 1995, and still couldn’t get the Karibu agreement terminated.

The company fought hard for survival. They reorganized their domestic structure around St Louis to help counter Karibu. The unions gave huge concessions. Employees actually bought an MD-83 and donated it to the company. TWA pilot Bill Compton took over as CEO, continuing to fly the line once a month. TWA was on the verge of profitability when a bare wire in a B747-131’s center fuel tank sparked disaster just off Long Island. Passengers deserted the airline in droves.

By the turn of the millennium, TWA was a ghost of its former self. Their aging B747s and L1011s had all been sold in the aftermath of TWA800, and only a few transatlantic routes remained. They still had a major presence in JFK at their iconic Terminal 5, but otherwise had retrenched to St Louis. Even in the bountiful days of the late 1990s, TWA was losing money, and by the fall of 2000 they were down to under $150 million in the bank.

It’s hard to say, then, what moved me to apply for an internship with TWA for the spring semester of 2001. I knew a girl in St Louis; she turned out to be nutty and drove me to drinking, but I liked her at the time. I had utterly burned myself out flying over the previous summer at UND and needed to get away from Grand Forks. Perhaps it was misplaced affection for the underdog. I said as much in the interview: “It’s do or die time for TWA. I’d like to be part of ‘do.’” It was either a winning line or there was a shortage of applicants lining up to intern for an airline apparently on the verge of collapse.

As it turned out, I worked for TWA for all of three days before they announced a third bankruptcy and purchase by American Airlines. For the remainder of the spring, I got to know a dying airline that had become a husk of itself, still living on the memory of past glory. What remained was a core of absolutely fantastic people and a singularly unique culture. At the time, I had no airline experience; I didn’t realize just how wonderfully different TWA was until well afterward.

When busy line pilots enthusiastically welcomed a lowly intern onto their jumpseat and treated me like a V.I.P., I didn’t know how overinflated egos complicate jumpseat politics at other airlines. When matronly flight attendants who had been flying since Kennedy was President tried to ply me with booze and set me up with their cute granddaughters, I never thought that other airlines’ “cat ranchers” might have a markedly different reputation. When my boss in Training Systems Development insisted that I take a week off to travel as a reward for work well done, I didn’t think much of it. When I met the retired TWA Captain in his 80s who still volunteered as a goodwill ambassador at LAX, I assumed all airlines had similarly loyal employees who couldn’t bear to say goodbye…and figured they would all be happy to have the extra help. When I helped a group of frequent fliers throw an unofficial farewell party in the old STL Ambassador’s Club, I guessed that most businessmen would get a little teary-eyed over the demise of their airline of choice.

At the Hilton in Cairo, Egypt, a very senior B767 Captain reached into his pocket and rented me a dayroom against my wishes because he recognized that a very jetlagged youngster on his first trip outside North America might do something stupid roaming the streets of a third world country. His parting words to me were, “Someday I hope to see you in the left seat. When that day comes, I want you to remember this lesson: always, always take care of your crew.” I took his words to heart and yearned for the day when I could fly with such wise old birdmen and learn from their wealth of experience.

TWA turned me into an airline pilot for life when the circumstances of the time probably ought to have sent me running for the hills. The majority of the pilots were stapled to American’s list and subsequently furloughed after 9/11. An even greater proportion of ground-based workers lost their jobs. Every single TWA flight attendant ended up on the street; in fact, I was on a TWA flight on their last day in November 2001 and every FA on the plane had over 40 years seniority. Of my coworkers in Training Systems Development, one was reassigned to Dallas and the others lost their jobs. One committed suicide less than a year later. Even Captain Randy at LAX had to finally resign himself to retirement.

Today, a sticker with TWA’s double globe logo graces my flight bag. Almost every week, pilots from the far corners of the industry approach to ask me whether I flew for their beloved former airline. My status as a mere intern in the fading twilight of TWA’s long history seems to do little to tamper these strangers’ enthusiasm; they talk to me like old friends. I think it’s because I understand a little bit of what was lost in 2001. The unvarnished reality is that by the end TWA paid their pilots poorly, flew shabby equipment, had few good routes, and couldn’t offer any light at the end of the tunnel. It was the people who made the airline. I don’t know if TWA was exceptionally talented at recruiting good folks, if simply treating their employees respectfully made the difference, or whether years of shared adversity had knit the group tightly. Whatever the cause, I now recognize that TWA had an utterly unique culture that will likely never be replicated in this industry.

If there is one overriding lesson I learned from my experience at TWA, it is this. When something good comes along in aviation, appreciate the heck out of it while you still can. Chances are, it will not last. Everything good in this industry, unfortunately, seems fated to disappear.