Monday, November 20, 2023

Come Fly With Me: New Book Tells the Story of TWA, Once the "Airline of the Stars"

By Carmelo Turdo
A new book, Come Fly With Me: The Rise and Fall of Trans World Airlines, tells the inside story of how a hybrid rail/air transcontinental travel system became a household name as the "Airline of the Stars" before collapsing to the pressures of deregulation and predatory investors. Co-authors Dr. Daniel Rust and Alan Hoffman were at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis November 9 for a book signing and panel discussion that sold out the book supply and filled the Lee Auditorium with many former TWA and Ozark Airlines employees (Ozark was acquired by TWA in 1986). The authors also made an appearance at the TWA Museum in Kansas City on November 10, bringing their message to the airline's early headquarters and current repository of TWA memorabilia, a former TWA Lockheed Electra aircraft, full-scale training equipment and a learning center.

During the autograph session, the Museum hosted several exhibits featuring TWA and St. Louis aviation historical items in MacDermott Grand Hall under the Spirit of St. Louis movie aircraft replica. The Greater St. Louis Air & Space Museum provided a 1960s-era flight attendant uniform along with aircraft models, patches, pins and other memorabilia. St. Louis University displayed an original Parks Air College mechanic coverall, crew wings and photo history of the Parks College evolution from the first federally certified school of aviation to a major part of the School of Science and Engineering at the University. Former TWA, Ozark and other airline pilots and maintenance technicians visited the exhibits and shared their experiences before heading to the auditorium for the main event.

A capacity crowd gathered in the Lee Auditorium for a presentation by the authors followed by a panel discussion with former TWA and Ozark Airlines employees. Missouri Historical Society Managing Director Sam Moore spoke briefly about the programs at the museum before introducing Alan Hoffman as the first speaker of the evening. 

Alan Hoffman retired as a partner with the Husch Blackwell law firm in 2017 and collaborated with Dr. Rust on his previous book, The Aerial Crossroads of America: St. Louis's Lambert Airport. His interest in St. Louis aviation and TWA developed over a lifetime of air travel for business and pleasure, and this book project was a natural fit for Hoffman and Dr. Rust. 

"In a way I was almost born for that job," Hoffman told the audience as he introduced his role in the TWA book project. "I flew on early TWA Constellations back in 1948. And almost twenty  years later, I was a passenger on one of the last TWA Constellation flights. During my law practice, I traveled all over the country, to Hawaii and to the UK on TWA for business, and my wife and I flew TWA domestically and internationally on vacations. Our last TWA flight was in the fall of 2001, shortly before it ceased to exist, when the agent upgraded us to first-class as a gesture of appreciation for our business. So, the subject really came naturally."

Hoffman was "introduced" to Dr. Rust in 2011 when his wife brought home from the library a book entitled, Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience, by Daniel L. Rust. He attended a presentation on the book by Dr. Rust at a local event, and they went on to produce the book on Lambert Airport in 2016 and Come Fly With Me earlier this year. In the intervening years, Hoffman also wrote a definitive history of Ozark Airlines, titled Up There With the Biggest: The Story of Ozark Airlines

Hoffman and Dr. Rust made extensive use of the TWA archives kept in the Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri St. Louis - 75-years of records covering TWA and its immediate predecessors, Transcontinental Air Transport and Transcontinental and Western Air. The documentation was very detailed, including corporate meeting minutes and photographs, providing the basis for Come Fly With Me. Interviews with former TWA and Ozark Airlines employees and executives were also conducted, and their stories were added to the narrative. The Missouri History Museum provided additional photographs and assisted in preparing the book for publication.

Come Fly With Me is not a dry, historical narrative that only aviation historians would venture to read. It is actually an intriguing story of the development of U.S. air travel in the context of the rise of American technological and industrial growth through the maturation of the current airline hub system. The story is told through the influence of three major actors, Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and Carl Icahn, who led and sometimes dragged TWA through the highs and lows of the often-troubled times of the airline industry. 

"The three characters that we zero in on in this book - Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and Carl Icahn - three that were as we say, larger than life," Dr. Rust said in his introduction to Come Fly With Me. "Three that exerted more influence and power than those who were the corporate leaders." Charles Lindbergh was an early consultant on fleet aircraft design, route structure and all-around credibility following his historic solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Howard Hughes was the major financier of TWA during the growth years of the late 1940s to the introduction of the Lockheed Constellation and Boeing 707 jetliner of the early 1960s. Hughes' reign at TWA began with great promise, but soon the airline became more like his personal flight service to the detriment of sound business practices. A decade later, airline deregulation drastically changed the government's role in setting routes and fares, and cash-light airlines such as TWA, Pan Am, Braniff and other legacy carriers found it even more difficult to compete. Investor Carl Icahn saw the opportunity to restructure TWA, sell off assets, cut expenses (i.e. employee concessions) and ultimately add to his personal wealth through a discount ticketing scheme in the process. TWA was ultimately absorbed by American Airlines in 2001, decimating airline traffic in St. Louis for decades.

Following Dr. Rust's presentation, a panel discussion was held on stage in the Lee Theater. The panel was moderated by Dr. Jody Sowell, President and CEO of the Missouri Historical Society, and included: (L-R) Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, Ozark Airlines employee, TWA executive and current Director of St. Louis-Lambert International Airport; Greg Pochapsky, Captain and Program Manager at Ozark Airlines, TWA and American Airlines; Jerry Castellano, Flight Attendant and instructor for Ozark Airlines and TWA; and Maurice Falls, Flight Attendant and Flight Service Manager for TWA and American Airlines.

Here we feature remarks from the panel members on two controversial topics:

The culture of Ozark Airlines and the merger with TWA:

Jerry Castellano
I've never experienced, or even observed, a company that had the camaraderie, and essentially felt like a family, as Ozark Airlines. To this day, we existed for thirty-six years, we've been gone for thirty-seven years, we still have annual reunions. It was a very informal place to work...We had extraordinary service...Basically, everyone respected everyone else's job...The first difference that most of us noticed in transitioning to TWA is that it was much more formal, there were a lot more rules...There were still a lot of people whose airline career ended in 1986 when Ozark was purchased. 

Greg Pochapsky
The thing about Ozark Airlines, from our experience from the pilot side, was they had a deep, deep background and experience. Most of the guys that we started flying with in the seventies had flown in World War II in one theater or the other. A lot of us came out of the military and at twenty-five years old we thought we knew everything. We started flying with these guys that flew on D-Day or flew in the islands during World War II, and you realize these guys can do this with their eyes closed. They're making nine stops a day with DC-3s and Fairchilds and now we're in the jet age and they've done it all. They were the greatest mentors that you could have had at the time. 

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge
The thing that stands out is that there was such a respect, and that respect, I think, came from Edward Crane on down, our CEO and President. And he believed the Midwestern people had a great work ethic and would make great employees. So they really focused on hiring people from the Midwest to really bring the type of customer service that he wanted to the airline. 

Maurice Falls
When we merged (from the TWA point of view), I became junior and so I went from going to Heathrow-London to Des Moines in October! We had a flight to North Dakota - the coldest flight in my life. Ozark people were just so remarkable in character and personality, and it was just something to remember because it did help initiate us as a family of the Midwest. 

Carl Icahn's effect on TWA:

Greg Pochapsky
Under Carl, things got difficult to do from a business standpoint...I was managing the MD-80 fleet and we needed stuff from McDonnell Douglas out at Long Beach and it was difficult to get done because we had zero credit, or less than zero credit...We were buying used airplanes, all the time...We were going around looking at used airplanes, and all of a sudden, we got a lot of new airplanes...We couldn't figure that out.

Maurice Falls
I lost my seniority, because right before the strike of flight attendants, they actually sent us to Europe. So when the strike started, if you participated in the strike in Europe, you couldn't get home. Carl Icahn was that kind of guy...We gave all the concessions we gave until we couldn't give any more. We were almost flying for a little bit of nothing, but it was in our blood.  

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge
He was interesting because he could be a nice person if you were just in a conversation not talking about the airline. But things that stuck in my mind - we had a TWA Ambassador Club in West Palm Beach, and it was only because Carl had an uncle there and his uncle wanted a club. And so we had a club in West Palm Beach until the day it shut down. And it didn't meet any of the criteria, but it didn't matter...If there was something that he wanted, he was going to have it. It didn't matter whether it fit within the portfolio or what made sense. If he wanted it, he had it. So that's the type of individual he was.

Jerry Castellano
We were merged in after the flight attendants at TWA went on strike...Ozark Airlines recognized that the face of Ozark Airlines would be the flight attendants...And the fact that he (Icahn) just figured they could all be replaced says a lot about what his business acumen was. At one level, he did extremely well for himself...Ozark owned all but two of our aircraft - we owned like fifty aircraft - and within weeks, he had made the purchase price back by selling the aircraft. We had to lease them to operate them, so our operating costs went way up. The longevity of the carrier was not his main goal.  

Come Fly With Me goes into great detail on these topics and many others as Dr. Rust and Alan Hoffman tell the story of the airline once touted by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Hollywood starlets as the "Airline of the Stars." The story of TWA is also a story of America, with its ups and downs and cultural transformations over three quarters of the twentieth century.

The Aero Experience thanks Dr. Daniel Rust, Alan Hoffman, the Missouri Historical Society, the Greater St. Louis Air & Space Museum, St. Louis University and everyone who worked to make the Come Fly With Me book launch in St. Louis a great success!

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