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The first Book of the Week is “Character & Characters, the Spirit of Alaska Airlines” by Robert J. Serling, published in 2008.
Alaska Airlines (AKA) came into existence in the mid-1940’s with the buyout of Star Air Service. It faced stiff competition from Northwest Airlines, and Pan American– which was already monster-sized from: its contract with the federal government to deliver the U.S. mails, and exchanging many political favors.
Mostly, AKA transported passengers between the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. In early 1949, it completed a dangerous mission, flying about 140 Jews from Yemen to the airport in Tel Aviv, while an Arab bomb could have hit the plane anytime.
In the 1950’s, top executive Charlie Willis had such passion for and loyalty and dedication to AKA, that he borrowed $100,000 using his personal house as collateral, in order to restore the pilot-pension-fund shortfall, to keep his employer from going out of business. Beginning at the dawn of the 1960’s, he enabled his second-in-command-executive to engage in deficit spending. They broke the bank to do promotional gimmicks.
In the back of its model CONVAIR 880, AKA installed a stand-up beer bar, even though it replaced eight passenger seats. AKA generated goodwill by throwing parties it couldn’t afford for industry players, such as its own employees and trade associations. In the late 1960’s, it bought hotels and a ski resort. AKA was one of the very first airlines to provide in-flight movies and music. So it hovered near bankruptcy, repeatedly unable to meet its employee payroll. For years.
Commercial airlines, initially transporting wealthy passengers, employed stewardesses in sexy uniforms– with no or minimal training, and offered alcoholic beverages included with the airfare. With evolution came the organization of labor– of pilots, flight crews and ground crews. Alaska’s bush pilots who had gotten in on aviation’s ground floor, had become disenchanted with the changing times. Bob Ellis sold his tiny airline in Alaska because he was no longer having fun, was emotionally exhausted from the government’s imposition of regulations, and didn’t understand the need for union labor. He had treated his employees well.
The Civil Aeronautics Board, one of the government’s regulatory bodies, was soon to stop subsidizing the (small, financially struggling) regional airlines (including AKA) in Alaska. The consolidation of the industry in the 1960’s meant no more floatplanes, biplanes, and single-engine monoplanes. These were replaced with DC-3’s and other faster, technologically superior aircraft.
Competing airlines were growing in size, complexity, and needed economies-of-scale and scope. Bosses couldn’t afford to pay for their employees’ expensive personal problems as though they were in a small business anymore. There was backlash by the workers against this vanishing era. They no longer felt like a family.
In summer 1970, AKA’s Willis (rumored to be an alcoholic) was able to get a new air route: to the U.S.S.R. Ironically, AKA had to lease a Pan Am 707 in order to do it. Willis became a drinking buddy to his Aeroflot counterparts. The passengers, who flew to Siberia, consisted mostly of Native Americans from Alaska visiting family, missionaries, and businessmen. They were treated to flatware made of gold, caviar in their Caesar salads, wine, and Russian samovars. The flight attendants dressed in Cossacks’ attire, with bear fur hats. Unsurprisingly, the flights proved insufficiently profitable over the course of three years.
AKA suffered less disastrous financial losses when the oil industry in Alaska kicked into high gear, in the late 1960’s. Oil-pipeline construction around Prudhoe Bay in the North Slope area became all the rage. From the Seattle-Tacoma airport, the airline’s Hercules’ C-130 planes transferred cargo, including hazardous materials that could accidentally cause a lot of wrongful deaths and property damage: 25,000 pounds of dynamite, heating and fuel oil and big, heavy drilling rigs for ground vehicles, and heaters.
In the early 1970’s, many pipeline workers liked hunting, but they got drunk before they flew home. AKA allowed rifles on their planes, so they hired the equivalent of bouncers who served as ground-crew screeners, and had a locked-up special gun-rack section in the front of the plane.
Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on Alaska Airlines’ role in the development of aviation, people, power struggles, technologies, and the tenor of its times up until the book’s writing.
The second Book of the Week is “Retail Gangster, the Insane, Real-Life Story of CRAZY EDDIE” by Gary Weiss, published in 2020.
Currently fading from Americans’ memory, is “Crazy Eddie.” Launched in the mid-1970’s, it was a retail chain of electronics stores in the northeastern United States. The company became known for a spokesman who flooded all kinds of advertising media with emotionally-charged screaming, that Crazy Eddie’s prices were insane. The repetitive repetition of this singular message worked. Eddie projected an image of success that fed on itself.
However, from the start, the store’s top executive– Eddie Antar– committed financial crimes. He had selfish, greedy intent, unlike the aforementioned Alaska Airlines executives, who were merely big spenders out of unbridled optimism and honest ineptitude.
Starting in 1984 when the company sold shares to the public, Eddie and his key employees (mostly his relatives) engaged in securities fraud. They had ongoing, frantic bursts of activity in which they: “…stuffed cash in the ceiling, stole store sales-taxes, [plus, they falsified inventory records] and defrauded insurance companies without a second thought. They did not expect to be caught, and if the Antars had any doubt on that score, they had only to look to City Hall for inspiration.” New York City’s government had committed exactly the same kinds of accounting fraud for years and years, beginning in the 1960’s. As the behavioral-economics cliche goes, “The fish rots from the head down.”
By 1987, Crazy Eddie had 2,250 workers in 32 locations from Philadelphia to New England. Read the book to learn a slew of details on the fates of Eddie, his families, and his businesses.