VIEWS: 7 PAGES: 9 POSTED ON: 5/21/2010
Musings, at 38,000 feet Rand K. Peck I was awakened from a sound sleep at 1430 hours, Pacific Daylight Time, when the phone next to my bed aroused me from the dead. I was on crew rest at the Beverly Hills, Holiday Inn Crown Plaza near an opulent Rodeo Drive, as I fumbled for the phone in my darkened room. We’d arrived in a foggy, pre-dawn Los Angeles, at 0545 that morning, having flown a red-eye in from Honolulu and faced yet another red-eye back to Detroit later tonight. This is the glitz and glory flying! “Rand, its Dane…we’re in bankruptcy”, I heard from the other end of the line. My copilot’s words hit me like a bolt of lightening. Nearly 80-year- old Northwest Airlines, founded in 1926, the nations oldest airline operating with its original name was in bankruptcy. Colonel Britton’s airline. Captain Holman’s airline. Mr. Nyrop’s airline. Mr. Higgins, Mr. Carr, Mr. Converse, Mr. Hayward, Mr. Bez and a good many other dedicated executives, had a hand in guiding her through nine turbulent decades as well. I don’t think though, that this is what they had in mind. It was difficult to fathom, as I tried to wake up and turn my television on, searching for Fox News. The last I’d been aware, ALPA was negotiating with the company, and I hadn’t anticipated this today. I have many friends employed at USAirways, United, ATA, Continental and at one time Eastern, all of whom have experienced this before me. But somehow, it just didn’t soften the blow. Failure is very difficult to accept. “It gets worse” Dane continued, “Delta’s bankrupt too.” Swell I thought, my mothers retired Delta. My Dad had flown at Northeast Airlines and Delta Airlines from 1946 through 1980, enjoying a career that spanned from DC-3’s to B-727’s. He would have never believed that “the family” could have gotten itself into this kind of fix. Within minutes, my cell phone started to ring. Friends, other pilots calling from around the globe to advise me of the news and ask what I knew. I’ve learned over the years, that nothing in the world travels faster than an airline rumor! Unfortunately, we were beyond the rumor stage. En route from Honolulu the night before, the topic on the “chat frequency” on the Pacific Track System was about bankruptcy and pensions. A lot of jokes were made, followed by nervous laughter…a type of gallows humor I suppose. Well out to sea, and out of continental VHF radio range, we normally share timely information such as turbulence reports, thunderstorm information and significant changes to winds aloft. Information and its location are identified by track, fixes, DME and lat/long. What airline the other fellow flies for is immaterial. It’s pertinent pilot-to-pilot information, shared freely and ACARS’d back to dispatchers and meteorologists, to be shared with other pilots. But late last night, at 140 degrees west latitude, along the Echo Track, conversations revolved around the health of old line; historic companies, who’d pioneered and built a safe and reliable global aviation system. Those companies bear little resemblance to the companies that were out here flying tonight. Northwest and Delta were in trouble…and from our darkened cockpits, far out to sea, we all knew it. Several hours later, I met Dane in the hotel lobby, as we made our way to LAX to fly NWA 338, at 2230 hours to Detroit. Another “backside of the clock” flight, but with time to reflect upon today’s crucial events. It was a somber ride. As was our passage through screening, down to Flight Operations and to gate 11 to preflight our B-757. Another full flight as passengers in the boarding area watched us closely as we passed by, heading to the gate. I’m accustomed to this, but tonight it was different. Normally, with some anxiety, passengers are sizing you up determining by your demeanor, your ability to safely transport them several thousand miles, through a dark, moonless night, around lines of rapidly building thunderstorms. They’ll be fast asleep though, before we even reach our cruising altitude and check in with SOCAL high altitude sector. But tonight, I felt like I trailed a banner that announced that I flew for a failed company. This is only day number one, on a long, expensive journey through bankruptcy…and I don’t much care for it. I’ve greatly enjoyed studying, writing and participating in airline history through the years. I’ve found that a dimly lit cockpit, in the middle of the night over Nebraska, immersed in a black, star-studded sky, is a wonderful place to contemplate that which you’ve learned. Even airline coffee taste’s good here, as I stare out my heated side- window, into the night for answers. My studies and personal experiences have taught me, that at one time, not so long ago, the airlines were run by “airline men”. If you’re knowledgeable of the history, the usual suspects are familiar to you; Nyrop at NWA, Smith at AAL, Patterson at UAL, Woolman at DAL, Carr at NCA, Bez at PAL and Rickenbacker at EAL to mention just a few. These men were airline builders, in a time equally as turbulent as we face today, with mergers, bankruptcies, hostile takeovers, airmail scandals, the spoils conference, recessions and a global depression. Labor would wrestle with these men during contract negotiations, but when the dust settled, most everyone returned to the business of building an airline. These leaders were wedded to their company. In fact, prior to deregulation, each airline would take on an aura and reflect the unique personality of its leader. Characters such as Baker at National, Trippe at Pan-Am, Six at Continental and Rickenbacker at Eastern were legendary, even in their own time. Can you think of any legendary airline leaders today? Even one, with some imagination? OK, Herb’s (SWA) a given, but perhaps Gordon Bethune, retired from Continental, but he’s the only other person who comes to mind. These men were engaged for twenty years or longer and demanded much from their junior executives. After all, they anticipated that a protégé may be running the outfit someday and giving one a bonus for loosing millions of dollars, would never have crossed their mind. We knew their goals, their motivations and that they were committed to building a company. Yes, the operating environment may have been marginally different, but we were dealing with men who had the company’s longevity in mind and were dedicated to building a business over time. Today, we’re manipulated by MBA’s, who just happen to work near an airport. My observations lead me to think, that other than to themselves, they’re devoted to nothing. I doubt that I’d find an NWA or a DAL or UAL sticker, proudly displayed on their automobile. They join the company with great fanfare, hang around for a few years, contribute little or nothing to the organization and quietly depart with bonus’s, golden parachutes, stock, consulting contracts, life-time medical benefits and passes. Of course, when they disappear with these benefits, long-time employees are advised that they’ll need to pay more for theirs and pensioners are notified by mail that they’re “out of luck”. As any good MBA has been taught, there is no such thing as “a free lunch,” someone has to pay for these perks. For the last few years, management has demanded that we accept pay cuts, while operating in today’s unusually harsh environment. Actually, I took my first pay cut 25 years ago and several others have followed. So have increases though. I understand completely; SARS, 9/11, the Iraqi war, exorbitant fuel pricing, Katrina, a string of Florida hurricanes, taxes, funding security and other events beyond their planning capabilities have daunted them. For the sake of the health of our company, many of us have contributed willingly. But they lose me, when shortly there after I read in the Wall Street Journal, that active executives have accepted bonus’s, stock options, deferred salary or an enhanced retirement package, claiming that it’s necessary to retain managerial talent. Albeit much of the same talent that lead us down the road into bankruptcy. Now that NWA is in bankruptcy, (its begun to sink in a little) our leader has generously announced that he is “committed” to staying around for at least a year! Then what? He’s off to greener pastures? Is this the leadership model that we’re expected to rally around? Where would our industry be, if leaders like C.R. Smith, Donald Douglas or Jack Frye, possessed similar values? Labor has not learned from the past, i.e. Century Pacific Airlines and E.L. Cord. But modern management has, they’re more astute readers than we are. In my twenty years with NWA, I’ve experienced two strikes, one merger and a leveraged buyout. Talk about saddling a company with debt and then walking away. But more importantly, I’ve seen 5 President/CEO’s come and go. That’s 20/5 or an average of 4 years apiece! I can’t possibly remember how many VP’s, Senior VP’s and Executive VP’s have rotated through the top floor, some more than once, as they skip from one airline to another or to other industries altogether. After all, a widget’s a widget and most couldn’t distinguish between a DC-3 and a DC-10. I’ve as well, grown weary of my fellow employees complaining about management as “they”, or how bad or inept “they” Northwest Airlines is. It’s no different than the grousing I hear from friends at competing airlines. Complaining among ourselves is like descending in a jet with the throttles advanced. It’s unproductive, wasted energy. You and I are Northwest Airlines, we always have been, but have allowed ourselves to become distracted. When a passenger is frustrated with service, standing at a check-in counter, he’s not looking to the President or VP of Finance for relief, he’s looking to you and me for a solution. He doesn’t envision us as part of the problem, but hopefully as an answer to it. We’ve become numbed, into caring too little about our passengers. Today’s rotating airline management teams, have demonstrated little or no leadership capability, they posses neither a rudder nor the moral compass to steer the ship. They’re “short timers” and if we’re to weather this violent storm, the individual employee needs to step up, assume his own leadership role and contribute at a higher level. You’re not doing this for management; you’re doing it for yourself…the company, the entity that sustains you. I love the airline industry, highly regard my fellow employees at Northwest Airlines and most other Trunk carriers for that matter, but yearn for an earlier time when airline managements were deeply committed to their company and to their people. When they were the company and chose to lead by example. I remember flying in such an environment, the attitude was contagious and permeated your daily working life. If you’re out there and reading this Mr. Nyrop or Mr. Carr…please call home. Or maybe Mr. Bethune is in search of a new challenge. We hunger for leadership.
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