28 March 2015

The Rise and Fall of Mohawk Airlines and Opening the Door for Frank Lorenzo

Robinson DC-3 crew with Robert Peach on the far right
In the days following Pearl Harbor, the US Civil Aeronautics Board suspended all awards for new air services given the wartime situation. However, the CAB soon realized that air services would need to expand the support the growing production effort for the war. On 11 July 1944 the CAB issued an judgement that created a new category of airline called a feeder or local service airline that would funnel passengers and goods from smaller communities to larger cities for connections to the large established trunk airlines of the day like the "Big Four" of United, Eastern, American, and TWA. One of the early pioneers to take advantage of the CAB's decision was an aerial photographer and inventor named C.S. Robinson in Ithaca, New York. His work with aerial photography before the war led him to developed a metal spring like shock mount for his cameras that was superior to the rubber mounts of the day that became hard at high altitude. Robinson's factory to support the war effort was in Teterboro, New Jersey and he commuted between Teterboro and Ithaca in his Fairchild 24. Finding a constant stream of people who wanted to hitch a ride with him to New Jersey, he decided to start his own airline to connect upstate New York to the New York/New Jersey area and on 6 April 1945 Robinson Airlines began airline services from Ithaca and New York City using three Fairchild 24s. With traffic growing, Robinson expanded to larger aircraft and hired pilots as fast as he could to meet demand. One of his new hires was a former Navy patrol pilot and lawyer named Robert Peach. 

Peach was decorated Navy pilot in the Pacific with two Distinguished Flying Crosses and at the time he joined Robinson Airlines, he was finishing law school at Cornell and wanted to get back into flying part-time. With the rapid growth of demand out of Ithaca, Robinson's laid back management style wasn't conducive to a growing airline and the finances according suffered in the immediate years after the end of the Second World War. Edwin Link, the developer of the Link Simulator that was vital to training pilots, had a factory in Binghamton, New York and was willing to invest in Robinson if there was a change of leadership to assure a return on his investment. Link provided the seed money to allow Robinson to upgrade to Douglas DC-3s and by 1952 Robert Peach had risen through the ranks to Robinson to gain the attention of outside investors. He ended up buying Robinson Airlines outright which assured Link's continued investment in the airline. One of his first acts as head of the airline was to hold a contest to rename the airline and that's how it became Mohawk Airlines. 

Robert Peach at the christening of Mohawk's first One-Eleven
Link's investments weren't enough for Mohawk as Peach pushed for an increase in the usual subsidy the CAB gave to local service airlines. It was a role that raised Peach's prominence in the airline community as he advocated for more support for the smaller airlines. In those days, the CAB had a subsidy given to airlines for routes they flew and Peach pushed for the CAB to treat local service airlines like Mohawk on the same basis as the large established trunk airlines. At the time the Eisenhower Administration wasn't too keen on the idea of increasing subsidies to local service carriers, but Peach and the other local service carrier heads had two important allies- one was Donald Nyrop, the head of the CAB at the time (who later became the head of Northwest Airlines) and Texas Democrat Representative Lloyd Bentsen. When the CAB opened up for applications for local service carriers in 1945, certification was provisional. Bentsen's proposed legislation would make certification of the local service carriers permanent, placing them on better footing with the established trunk carriers and opening the door to increased subsidies from the CAB. President Eisenhower signed the bill after it was unanimously passed by both houses of Congress in 1955. 

Mohawk's BAC One-Elevens increased its stature in the industry
Beginning 1962 Mohawk under Peach's leadership grew tremendously. I had previously written about Mohawk's fight to acquire jet equipment in the form of the BAC One-Eleven that culminated in Peach winning the fight and the first Mohawk BAC One-Eleven, christened "Ohio" flew its first revenue services on 25 June 1965. In addition, Fairchild-Hiller FH-227 turboprops were also put into service to replace the piston twins with Mohawk reaching its zenith in 1967 with route awards from the CAB to Detroit, Cleveland and Boston. The floor fell out from underneath Robert Peach and Mohawk Airlines in 1968. On 23 June that year, the BAC One-Eleven "Discover America" crashed on a flight from Elmira, New York, to Washington, DC. The cause was a valve failure in the APU that resulted in an inflight fire that compromised the tail structure. Two weeks later, a new air traffic controllers union called Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) that started in New York City staged a slowdown to protest inadequate staffing and excessive overtime. Working to the letter of the rules, air traffic back up around numerous chokepoints that led into the New York City area. From July to August, the PATCO action proved disastrous to many airlines, but more so to Mohawk given its route structure. Peach even tendered a bill to the FAA for costs incurred during the PATCO slowdown as a protest. In the following year, a general downturn in the economy then hit Mohawk's passenger numbers. By 1970, the nation was in recession and every airline was losing money and this further added to Mohawk's woes. To save costs, many local service carriers were handing off services to smaller cities to commuter airlines with the CAB subsidy "flowing through" from the local service carrier to the commuter airline. Mohawk's rival, Allegheny Airlines, was already doing this with their "Allegheny Commuter" brand. The CAB permitted this as long as the local service airline would step back in should the commuter airline cease services to any of the communities. 

Frank Lorenzo at the time of his takeover of Texas International
At Mohawk, the pilots saw the outsourcing to commuter airlines as a threat to their jobs (some things in the airline industry never change and this is still a contentious issue in airlines today). One minute before midnight on 12 November 1970, the pilots went on strike after the failure of negotiations and Mohawk was essentially shut down as an airline. The debts that Mohawk incurred upgrading to the BAC One-Eleven and FH-227 aircraft were piling up against declining traffic. The pilot's strike was a nail in Mohawk's coffin as the management turned to a small New York City aviation consulting firm to assist with a turnaround. This small firm was Jet Capital, founded in August 1966 by two Harvard business school graduates, Frank Lorenzo and Bob Carney. With a small office in the prestigious Pan Am building in Manhattan, Lorenzo and Carney had a stock offering in January 1970 that netted them $1.5 million in "seed money". They had earlier provided financial consulting to Detroit-based cargo airline Zantop  that got their name out in the industry. Lorenzo met with Robert Peach on numerous occasions and Jet Capital offered Mohawk a restructuring plan that essentially resulted in Lorenzo controlling Mohawk Airlines. At the time, Lorenzo was only 30 years old- and his plan to take over Mohawk was a bit much for the Robert Peach and the board to swallow. With the airlines' fortunes waning quickly, Peach instead allowed his long time rival Allegheny Airlines to purchase Mohawk. By this time the slow slide of Mohawk meant that Peach had less control over Mohawk than what was the case in 1967. On 20 April 1970, he had lunch with Frank Lorenzo thanking him for his services and offer but that the board had decided to sell to Allegheny. After lunch, Robert Peach went home to prepare for a speech he was to give that night, but instead shot himself in the head, the loss of Mohawk too much to bear for him. 

Robert Peach wasn't only airline boss to kill himself after dealing with Lorenzo. That will be the subject of a future post on this blog as we track Frank Lorenzo's rise to prominence in the airline industry. The sale of Mohawk to Allegheny left Jet Capital with its seed money from its stock offering burning a hole in their pockets. Lorenzo came tantalizingly close to getting control of an airline, something he had long wanted since he was a teenager. In 1971, Mohawk wasn't the only airline in need of a financial turnaround. Based in Houston was Texas International and it wasn't long before they engaged Frank Lorenzo's services that year. But you'll have to wait for another blog article to find out how that went.....

Source: Airline Executives and Federal Regulation: Case Studies in American Enterprise from the Air Mail Era to the Dawn of the Jet Age by Walter David Lewis. Ohio State University Press, 2000, pp 295-318. Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines into Chaos by Thomas Petzinger. Times Business/Random House, 1996, pp 38-43. Photos: Historical Images (historicalimages03 on eBay), Wikipedia, PostcardPost.com

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