Looking Back on 50 Years of Flight

50 years ago this week, at age 14, I took my first airline flight. My buddy Greg and I finished Sunday-morning caddying at a country club (earned five bucks for 18 holes!), got on our bikes, rode 9 miles to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, and – just for fun — flew to Rochester Minnesota, 72 miles away. The ticket cost $10.50 round-trip.

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> A Northwest Airlines 727 similar to the one that flew us to Rochester

A 22-minute flight on a Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 changed my life forever.
During that summer of 1966, I wondered, “Could I pursue my new passion for flight and make some money doing it?” The first yes answer came quickly. I built a little business in our basement, assembling plastic scale-model Boeing jets, painting and decorating them faithfully, and selling them to Northwest Airlines pilots and stewardesses (as they were called back then).

The second yes followed a few years later, when I landed a job booking and hand-writing airline tickets for a travel agency, work that paid for college and introduced me to six continents before the age of 22. Those global forays kindled a long interest in geography, culminating in a Ph.D. focused on airlines, tourism, and economic development.

Academia was interesting, but in the back of my mind I wanted to be part of the airline industry. So following a stint in business school, in 1984 I signed on with the former Republic Airlines, which had just embarked on a successful turnaround under new leadership. It was a fine introduction to the tumult of a rapidly-changing industry. After jobs there and at Northwest, I joined American Airlines, where I stayed for 22 years, working all across the company, from I.T. to international planning, from onboard service to advertising. Since 2009, I have been on my own, consulting for airlines and their suppliers, and teaching students worldwide how the business works.

Reflecting on the three decades in and near airlines (and 4.6 million miles as a passenger), I still marvel at flight, the wonderful business of bringing people together, and getting us to new places. You get on a jet, fasten your seat belt, take a nap or watch a movie, and in less than half a day you’re on the other side of the world. And very often people hug and kiss you when you arrive.

These decades have conveyed other perspectives, too. I’ve had a front-row seat on the transition from a half-century of distorting Federal economic regulation to something that looks more like a marketplace that other industries take for granted. When I started writing plane tickets in 1969, the government micromanaged the business: market entry, routes, flight frequency, and price were all dictated from Washington. It was stable, but it was also noncompetitive – and only available to a small and select group.

In 1978, six years before I joined Republic, Congress deregulated the domestic business. As is always true with big change, there has been pain along the way, as older airlines and their workers adjusted to the new rules. That adjustment is now mostly complete, and U.S. airlines now run like real businesses.

The spectacular result of deregulation: almost everyone can fly, thanks to much lower prices; including fees for baggage and other ancillaries, on average air travel costs almost 40% less than in 1979. We have democratized flight, a mode once only for the affluent. My airline career has been enormously satisfying on many levels, but enabling more people to fly has been foundational.

Along the way, there’s been hardship and trauma, too, for ours is a business distinctly exposed to the troubles of the world. We were at American Airlines headquarters on 9/11 (two of the four crashed airplanes were ours), and at other tragic and challenging times, too. We lived through pay cuts and staff reductions. It made us stronger.

We got through times of crisis and challenge by working together. Indeed, another joy has been working with airline people, a determined and resilient lot. Although I worked in management, I also flew as an extra flight attendant, worked check-in and boarding at gates, and rode in the cockpit jumpseat. That frontline experience reinforced a long and strong belief in the professionalism and commitment of U.S. airline employees. They sometimes get a bad rap, often because of things they don’t control. It’s hard to smile when a cranky passenger blames you for a thunderstorm or air traffic control delay. But almost every one of them gets enormous satisfaction from their work.

Nowadays, youngsters speak of things digital as transformative technology, and they surely are, but we airline people were there first: since the advent of the jet airliner almost 60 years ago, our business has transformed the world for the better:

  • Enabling the movement of talent and expertise: at any moment, a range of skills and expertise are flowing globally, like the electrical engineer I met in Chile, building the nation’s power grid
  • Helping companies and entire nations grow new markets, and in so doing foster economic development and improved living standards; investors can click a mouse and send200 million across the earth in a millisecond, but first they fly to meet their overseas partners, go to dinner, and get to know them
  • Essentially inventing just-in-time logistics and the quick availability of products from semiconductors to Valentine’s Day roses
  • Underpinning global immigration, a mixing that, despite well-known bumps, has been a huge net positive for humankind; the jet has hugely changed the scale and diversity of permanent relocation
  • Making possible vacations of all kinds, from the weekend jaunt to see friends and family (those hugs again!) to the once-in-a-lifetime tour, to all sorts of formal and informal opportunities to learn about the world’s people and places – perhaps to understand that humanity is more alike than different.

Indeed, the airline role in opening minds is often overlooked. Former American Airlines CEO Gerard Arpey said it splendidly in 2007: “It is one of the great blessings of our business that – simply by showing up and doing our jobs – we promote understanding, tolerance and peace.” Airlines have delivered on Mark Twain’s 1869 observation that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

I’ve been blessed and privileged to work in a business that improves lives in so many ways. It’s been quite a ride and, I hope, far from over.

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