Thursday, May 15, 2014
Touchstone: Paying It Forward
If you have a moment or two to spare, settle in. I'm in the mood to tell one of my stories...
In the 1980s, the post-deregulation US airline industry was being upended by upstart "mavericks" like Carl Icahn and Frank Lorenzo. Through a variety of contrivances, these two rather unconventional, atypical airline executives took control of industry stalwarts TWA and Continental. While deregulation itself provided the stage setting, it was these characters who forever altered the US airline landscape. While TWA and Continental were the direct targets, the industry as a whole was impacted by their machinations.
I was a Flight Attendant for Continental during this very tumultuous period. "Peanuts fares", "no frills", "Add-a-friend" for a penny", domestically at Continental, the gimmicks seemed endless. At the same time, Continental was operating 3 class DC10-30s in the Pacific and offering a level of service comparable to our international competition. "Who in the hell are we?", even employees of long-standing would ask. Who were we supposed to be, anyway? Southwest or QANTAS? The questions were legitimate as we had no clear identity or mission. Essentially, we were trying to be all things to all people...and failing miserably on all fronts. We were widely viewed as the worst US airline in the industry and the traveling public, who spent their money for the privilege of flying with us, never hesitated to remind us of that sad fact.
There's just one thing...
I was relatively new and impressionable. What I knew of Continental was it's glorious past under Robert Six; both he and the airline were legendary. Assimilating the very real disconnect between what I knew and what I was experiencing was DEVASTATING to my morale and to the morale of many of my contemporaries. I remind you that Continental did not have the resources or global scope that today's airline leviathans enjoy. Going out of business completely was a very real, EVER-PRESENT possibility. Of course, we survived and even thrived. But it wasn't easy and it wasn't quick. How did we muddle through the quagmire and into airline paradise?
We relied upon each other, plainly and simply. Our Chief Executive was a quiet, almost anti-social and reviled (by many) public figure. I met Mr. Lorenzo on several occasions and, oddly maybe, felt sorry for him. He pursued his own agenda and became one of the most unsympathetic characters in American business. His actions and/or inactions quite literally destroyed lives. We did NOT find solace or hope in the corporate offices. But we DID find them "on the line".
In particular, I remember those who were somewhat senior to me as paragons to be admired and emulated for their strength and conviction that all would be OK. As I remember them today, the feelings they engendered in me, a young and very impressionable "new kid", I can get misty-eyed. Maybe they knew what an impact they had on myself and others. Maybe not. But they shared a gift that cannot be repaid. It can only be paid forward.
Why am I confident in my future at my airline employer, in our future here? Because I've been here before. I've been through worse; much, much worse. I survived. We survived and we rose like the Phoenix through our own force of will and our belief that we would make it. We did. We will.
I have worked for the most reviled airline in the industry. I have worked for the most respected airline in the industry. Irony of ironies, they were one in the same.
Whom do I thank? Chris & Bill Rattray, Simon Casarez, Rae Mackintosh, Pam Hart Cole, Connie Seger, Judy Blair, Judy Noonan, Suzanne Hendricks, Byron & Sally Pettingill...and countless others. Many are still here today, doing exactly what they were doing 30 years ago. Role models. Hope inspirers. Colleagues. Friends.