The Great Airline War

Flying the not-so-friendly skies of Texas.

Russell Thayer held the world between his outstretched hands. “This, over here, is Hawaii,” he said, jiggling his right hand, “and this,” jiggling his left, “is Dallas. We fly a 747 between them, the only 747 we’ve got. To make a 747 pay off, you have to have a long haul with a lot of people on board. Now, it turns out that the distance between Dallas and Honolulu is exactly right. If it were any shorter, you couldn’t fly it as efficiently. And if it were any longer, you couldn’t turn it around for the daily round trip.”

Thayer lowered his hands and leaned across the desk. “I decided that the islands were in the right place, and I didn’t move ’em an inch.”

Russell Thayer laughed, a hearty, warm-natured laugh that rumbled up out of his football player’s body. He was sitting in his office on the ninth floor of the Braniff Tower on the west side of Dallas. Around the airlines industry, Thayer is known as a genius, as the man who has helped turn Branifif into one of the most efficient money makers the business has ever seen. Five days a week he works in Dallas as Braniff’s executive vice-president for Corporate and Market Planning The other two-days—this is the beauty of working for an airline—he spends at home in Princeton, New Jersey. Word is that he hates Texas.

One floor above Thayer, Harding Lawrence—with studied informality—came from behind his desk and gestured his visitor to the coffee table at the opposite end of the room. Perched on the table was a model of the supersonic Concorde jet, painted in bright Braniff colors. At Lawrence’s elbow was a matching model of the Boeing 747.

When he became chairman and chief executive officer of Braniff ten years ago, Lawrence was often described as “dashing” and “romantic.” Now, his silver hair and deeply creased face make him look ten years older than 55; his appearance hovers on the line between “distinguished” and “tired.” A smile on his face, Lawrence offered his visitor an expensive cigar, then began chewing on an unlighted one himself as he talked about his airline.

“We have our creeds, our objectives. We know what we stand for. Our job is to promote the foreign and domestic commerce of the United States, the national defense, the postal service—and to do that in the public interest. You might say, in the consumer’s interest. The airline industry is the most consumer-oriented business I know.

As Lawrence spoke, a red and orange jet from Southwest Airlines, perfectly framed in the picture window behind him, settled in for a landing at Love Field. In addition to pursuing its high-flown goals, Braniff has spent almost five years trying to prevent this very occurrence. For its efforts, the company has been indicted by a federal grand jury for antitrust violations in trying to kill Southwest.

Serious as such a charge is, it is not the most serious challenge facing Lawrence and his airline. In Washington, an accusation of unprecedented gravity is now pending before the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). Based on revelations of a sizeable Braniff slush fund (generated through “off the books” sale of tickets and used to bribe ticket agents in South America), the complaint threatens Braniff’s right to operate any route, foreign or domestic, as long as “present management retains operational control.” “Present management,” as everyone understands, means Harding L. Lawrence.

In Houston, Francisco Lorenzo was turning on the charm. Four years ago, when he had just turned 30, Lorenzo came down from the Northeast, trailing his Harvard Business School pedigree, to take control of Texas International Airlines. TI was in deep, deep trouble at the time; the year before Lorenzo became president, the airline lost more than $6 million. Now TI is in deep trouble again. During the first half of 1975, after TI’s disastrous, five-month-long strike, the company was losing money even faster than it had in 1971. Like Braniff, TI is under federal indictment for antitrust activities against Southwest. Nonetheless, Lorenzo was the very picture of urbane good will as he listened to a question based on the latest appalling hypothesis about Texas International: that it had outlasted its reason for existence.

“Of course we don’t agree with that,” he said, attempting to suggest with his smile that no reasonable man possibly could agree. “We came to a company that was flat on its back, twenty million in the hole. It was in trouble not because it had bad routes, not because its employees weren’t dedicated, but because management had made some bad mistakes. We’ve turned that around now. Until the strike, we were making money. We’ve paid off more than half of that twenty million. We are making long strides forward.”

Lorenzo was ready for another question; whether, as many people suspect, he had taken over TI as a business pirate’s booty, to be sold quickly at a profit.

“Texas International is not for sale. It has not been for sale. It will not be for sale,” Lorenzo continues to smile, with apparently genuine graciousness.

“Are there any circumstances under which it might be for sale?”

“When we get to the bankruptcy courts.”

Lamar Muse was a symphony in pink. On his bald spot and on the cheeks which framed his white mustache, his skin was as pink as a newborn baby’s. His aviator’s glasses were tinted pink. He wore a pink-striped tie, and a shirt of pink checks. His jacket was a plaid—gray and pink. He radiated, like a pastel sun, as he sat munching on a cheeseburger in Austin’s Polonaise restaurant.

“There’s a story I love to tell, about a man who ran a hamburger stand, whose children wanted to open up a fancy restaurant. He took them aside and told them, ‘Boys, remember this: feed the rich, and grow poor; feed the poor, and grow rich.’ That’s really what we’ve done. We’ve made airline travel available to the average person.”

Muse

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