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									                      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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