TWA: Gone but far from forgotten

Dec 1, 2019

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It may be nearly 20 years since one of America’s most venerable airline brands ceased operations and was acquired by American Airlines on Dec. 1 2001, but for TWAers, Trans World Airlines will never be forgotten. It lives on today in the form of the TWA Hotel at New York’s JFK airport, in Facebook groups and websites, and in the memories of those who called it home and say working for the airline was the best job they ever had.

Indeed, as we celebrate the 18th anniversary of the American Airlines-TWA merger, we have seen a rekindling of interest brought on by the hotel’s opening.

In May, thousands of TWAers flocked to what many consider Eero Saarinen’s Cathedral to Aviation – The TWA Flight Center, lovingly brought back to life after nearly two decades empty. Guests shared their memories of the once great international carrier and descriptions of the industry’s golden age.

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“We had to be scrappy,” said San Francisco-based Henry Harteveldt, founder of travel consultancy Atmosphere Research, who began his career at TWA. “We didn’t have the largest fleet or the most destinations, but we were truly a global airline. There was a commitment to quality until the very end. We were very tribal. Some of the best people I worked for were at TWA.”

“See that aircraft out there?” asked TWA Maintenance Crew Chief Anthony Scimeca, as he wistfully watched guests climb the air stairs to board the 61-year-old restored Lockheed Constellation, named “Connie.” “I worked on that very aircraft. I loved working for TWA.”

“It is still the best job I ever had despite pay freezes and pay cuts during the 11 years I was there,” Steve Kansagor, who moved from college sales rep to sales and marketing, told TPG. “All I wanted to do was work for TWA. I loved the people and worked through a lot of the sales and marketing challenges. I thought they were among the smartest people I knew in the business.”

What is particularly remarkable about the intense feelings TWAers have for their airline, is they experienced some of its most heartbreaking times: when it was coping with American deregulation, being gutted by Financier Carl Icahn, and when Frank Lorenzo did little better. It was also a time when TWAers were pulling together to make the airline succeed despite these reckless raiders.

So, why was TWA so special?

“TWA had a sense of wonder with a camaraderie that brought all of us together as a family,” said Eva M. Nowakowski, who spent most of her career rising through the reservations ranks to management. “Our passengers were our guests and we’d strive every day to make their travel experience one of excellence in the industry. We took major pride in its customer services, operations, routes, aircraft and crews. TWA was renowned for its quality of service and attention to detail at every level of the travel experience.”

The Lindbergh Line

TWA lasted 71 years after starting life in the 1920s as the Lindbergh Line. Charles Lindbergh mapped Transcontinental Air Transports’ cross-country routes before it was later merged with Western Air Express to form Transcontinental & Western Air (T&WA) in 1930.

The Los Angeles-New York Ford TriMotor flight was piloted by Charles Lindbergh while the New York-Los Angeles leg was christened by Amelia Earhart, as depicted in the famous documentary. It created the shortest coast-to-coast route, cutting 19 hours off the flight.

One of TWA’s earliest accomplishments was its Ford TriMotor coast-to-coast journey in 48 hours, shaving 19 hours off American Airlines’ time.

It was instrumental in the creation of the DC-3 and, with TWA President Jack Frye and Eastern Airlines President Eddie Rickenbacker at the helm, set a transcontinental record of 13 hours and four minutes flying a DC-1 from Glendale, CA, to Newark in 1934.

In 1939, control slipped into the hands of Howard Hughes, who became the nexus between the airline and Hollywood and is likely why so many movies sport a TWA scene. It was also Hughes who ordered the Lockheed Constellation, the inspiration of Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at JFK.

“[Hughes] brought to the table glittering celebrities, a true aviator’s love of flying, and money, money, money,” wrote reporter Elaine Grant in 2006. “But he also brought the eccentric behavior that foreshadowed his descent,” and drove aircraft manufacturers and financiers crazy, dampening the prospects for the airline.

TWA may not have been the first to operate a jet, but its 707-300 was the first to connect all the world’s continents. It was after this heyday that TWA began to decline.

“Since the days when Howard Hughes owned TWA it was always a progression of poor executive choices that doomed TWA,” explained Nowakowski. “It seemed every time the airline was on a growth track, management derailed the financial progress we made. There were the poor responses to deregulation, fleet choices and utilization, routes and hub selections. These failings combined to open the door to Icahn, who bought the airline in 1985, and the end of TWA.”

“It was heartbreaking to live through the Icahn days that tore apart TWA,” said Nowakowski. “Icahn sold our assets, routes, and encumbered TWA with growing debt in a downward spiral from which it would never recover. It did not seem to matter how hard everyone worked because our fate was sealed by Icahn. The only thing he did not sell was our souls.”

It was limping along, heading into its third bankruptcy, when acquired by American.

“TWA was such an incredibly exciting place to work,” former employee Jane Carlson told TPG. “What was especially fun and stimulating was that virtually the entire marketing group in the late 70s and early 80s was professionals in their 20s and 30s. We often worked long hours but then we’d dash out to JFK on a Friday night and hop on the first plane to Europe we could get on as a group. TWA was a fabulous education. If I’d never worked at TWA, I never would have had the wonderful career, had the friendships I have or met my husband!”

That is what makes TWA so special. The people, the work and the friendships that, to this day, continue to draw them together.

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