There’s nothing quite like working for an airline.
My job in Corporate Communications was exciting, nerve-wracking, fast-paced, energizing and because of the people – fun. The unique jargon made you feel like part of some special, cool club. My family flew standby for $10 one-way, anywhere. All of us worked hard to protect and grow TWA’s proud legacy and long history of firsts. After all, it had been the airline of the stars – the Hollywood kind. We had 25,000 employees around the globe. And, I was proud to be among them.
Those days of course are long gone. TWA hit really hard times, with seemingly endless headlines screaming monikers such as “struggling carrier,” “financially-strapped airline,” or even the taunt “Teeny Weenie Airline.”
In the thick of it, we raced to meetings in our corporate St. Louis offices with brave faces. We had many constant reminders of our employer’s struggles – not the least of which was Director of Media Relations John McDonald’s “CEO row,” the many black and white exec photos tacked to his bulletin board (pointing out, in John’s subtle way, the revolving door of leader’s we’d had in just a few years). Each one had played a role in the business’ demise, but Carl Icahn – who many thought would save the airline when he bought it – had done just the opposite, and had then discarded both it and us like useless pennies in his pocket.
Despite all that, in 1996 we were just about to post a big achievement: POSITIVE quarterly earnings. I served as Director of Internal Communications, working alongside Elise Eberwein, Director of Community Relations, and of course, John doing media. Under our then VP Mark Abels, we’d each planned ways to promote the good news. Stormy skies were lifting and blue ones definitely seemed to be ahead.
We were dead wrong.
Flight 800 happened then, and it was an awful, awful time. Hundreds of innocent people died. On TV, we watched the logo on the B-747 airplane’s tail bobbing up and down in the ocean surrounded by the debris of lost lives. Our hearts and stomachs ached, and everyone’s eyes burned from crying or trying not to. Our fingers trembled while we worked through nights with little sleep and too much coffee. Deep down, I think we all knew it was the beginning of the end for TWA.
I left the airline in 1998 and then in 2001, American Airlines agreed to buy TWA. It was over.
But now TWA is back – albeit in a small fashion – for new generations.
This past weekend, Mark and I joined John and Elise and their spouses to stay at the new TWA Hotel at JFK International Airport, a resurrection of the previous TWA International Terminal. The hotel is peppered with TWA memorabilia, signage, old uniforms, marketing posters, and even music and newspapers from the 1960s. The whole experience of being entrenched in TWA stuff was a bit surreal. I’m thrilled the architecturally-significant landmark terminal, which had been abandoned and falling apart for years, is gloriously pretty and useful again. Someone took a chance on her, and brought her back to life.
We were joined for drinks and dinner by one of our former Corp Comm leaders, the hilarious and formidable Don Fleming, who lives in Connecticut. I haven’t seen Don in a very long time and he’d been a strong influence in my life. When I first spotted him and his wife Linda in the expansive, open lobby area, I can only say I forgot where I was and how I was supposed to act. I shouted his name until he turned, and then dashed over to hug him like the long-lost friend he is.
As old friends and colleagues, we walked around, each of us remembering when our footsteps raced around this place. (For me, it was conducting photo shoots.) We’re older, grayer, living in different cities and leading new lives, but we’ll always and forever be linked.
We traipsed on the familiar dot-patterned floors, and strolled through red-carpeted, low-ceiling tunnels now leading to newly built hotel rooms instead of gates. Through the massive glass window where people used to watch planes taxiing, we joined others to gape at a Constellation painted in TWA’s familiar red and white livery (Connies were an early aircraft in the TWA fleet), beckoning us to visit her lounge.
I’m so glad I got to share the experience with people who are so dear to me. They were, and still are, my airline family, and my good friends.
Others who weren’t there, from our team during various years, were missed (and of course, absolutely talked about … ). Sam Nakamura, Rachel Newsome, Donn Walker, Maddy Smith, and many others – all unique, gifted, compassionate, talented individuals.
My time at TWA was special. You know, there was nothing quite like working for an airline.