The Death of a Dream
The end of the original Frontier Airlines
by Nelson Embleton
I have been asked to give my thoughts and opinions of why, after many years of successful service, Frontier Airlines ceased operations and effectively disappeared from the airline scene.
May I briefly tell who I am and what my interest in that affair was.
My name is Nelson Embleton and in the years before, during, and immediately after the bankruptcy proceedings I was the chairman of the Frontier Airlines Section of Transport Workers Union, Local 540. This local represented many of the Flight Dispatchers at other U.S. airlines in various cities.
Our group was never very large. At most the airline never employed more than 35 to 40 people as dispatchers, assistants and flight operations coordinators.
In the Frontier Employees Coalition, we were the tail of the dog. And I have never heard of the tail wagging the dog! So much for our influence on the events that followed.
I would say that there were four major factors that led directly to the end of the old Frontier:
1. Deregulation of the airline industry.
2. The sky rocketing fuel costs.
3. Mis-management by Glen Ryland, after Al Feldman departed for greener pastures.
4. The inability of Bill “ Rocky “Patterson (the I.A.M.coalition rep.) to convince Dean Ames and the rest of the machinists hierarchy that some concessions were necessary if the airline was to survive.
There were other factors that affected the continuation of Frontier as a viable entity, of course. One that I can’t forget was my sense that O’Neil was convinced that the employees could never operate a profitable airline. And ‘though he voiced a willingness to listen to our proposals, he always seemed to be able to throw roadblocks in our path.
I will not rehash all of the many small and tedious steps we (the coalition ) took in our efforts to preserve Frontier. I’ll just cite an instance or two concerning each of the major factors.
When A. L. Feldman took over as president of Frontier (1971) we were flying a mixed fleet of aircraft. We had DC-3s, Convair 580s, Dart 600s, old Boeing 727s. We also had a couple of the smaller Boeing 737s.
Feldman decided to standardize the fleet. He realized that a one type of plane fleet would require fewer spare parts to be kept in stock, that maintenance checks and overhauls could be simplified. The trade off was that we had to abandon many of the smaller towns that did not have the capability of handling jet aircraft. Goodbye to Gunnison, Santa Fe, Cortez, Fayetetville, Ponca City, Liberal, and a host of other towns that had supported us as much as they could. But that’s progress.
“Al” was an operations oriented president. He also kept his employees in the decision loop so they could comment as required and intelligently perform their jobs within the frame work of company policy and be aware of the long term goals for Frontier.
In the early 70’s the country experienced a severe fuel crisis. The country’s position had been that oil was plentiful, the price per barrel was low so why worry? Then the oil producing countries decided that they wanted to join the ranks of the wealthier nations. The oil producers cut back on production and raised the price. Naturally, the airlines had to raise the ticket price to help offset higher operating costs and the cost of doing business started it’s upward spiral. This was manageable in the protected environment we operated in at that time. But, when deregulation became the law, in 1978, all bets were off. Frontier was hard put to match our strongest competition in Denver, United and Continental. In an attempt to generate more passenger traffic they cut prices and put on additional flights over most of the routes where Frontier was in competition with them. We, Frontier, applied for new routes and cities but the story was repeated as other carriers operating in and out of major “hub” cities did what United and Continental had done out of and through Denver. The paying public loved it. Lower fares & more flights to choose from.
Before deregulation ( pre 1978 ) there were many airlines serving the flying public: Local service carriers provided air service to many small communities. Regional carriers provided service to larger cities and “fed“ passengers to the Trans-continental and International carriers at most of the major population centers throughout the United States.
Now what has happened to these local carriers and most of the regional carriers? Where is Capitol Airways?
Where is Ozark Airlines? What happened to Mohawk, North Central, Pacific Southwest, Pioneer, Southern, Trans-Texas Airlines and where is Braniff, Frontier (the real one) Western, Eastern, and other regional carriers? So, too, have many of the great international airlines vanished from the skies. T.W.A. Pan American, Pan Agra and others.
In the rush to be number one in the industry, mergers were consummated, absorptions took place and more than one airline just went out of business.
What have we today? A shaky American, a shaky Continental, a bankrupt Delta, a bankrupt United, a bankrupt U.S. Air! And, as always, they are trying to return to profitability on the backs of the employees who have been and will be the backbone of any business. Management, however, is NOT alone to blame for this sorry state of affairs. Year by year the “Unionized “workers had made and, generally gotten pay raises, enhanced benefits, modified work rules that give them more time off, more vacation time and a pervading sense that this would continue forever. It could not and it came as a shock when the money tree ran out of green leaves.
It was inevitable that some other airline that was struggling made” Al “ an offer he couldn’t refuse. He departed in January of 1980. Glen Ryland, who came to Frontier with” Al “ from --wherever--, took on the presidency of our airline.
To say that Ryland’s style of management was quite different from what we were used to under “Al “, is putting it mildly. “Al” was able to communicate effectively with his employees, Glen seemed aloof and reluctant to tell us what was going on. Part of the problem was that Glen’s field of experience was in finance and other paper shuffling. He knew practically nothing of the intricacies of airline operations. This created a muted, but real friction, among the employees. This friction was carried over into the ranks of his upper level management team. It was well known that Hank Lund disagreed with Ryland’s autocratic style.
Glen’s plan to bring profitability to Frontier was to “Diversify“. (This was the popular buzz word of the day.) Two, or more, subsidiaries were to be formed. The first was Frontier Services which was to acquire or begin aviation related activities. The second subsidiary was to be involved with non-aviation ventures.
Hank Lund, who was close to retirement and not wanting to jeopardize his benefits, accepted the position of president of Frontier Services. In a very short time Frontier Services acquired an agent training school, an aviation maintenance training school, started an aviation training school and started a maintenance base in Denver. The new company also landed a very lucrative contract with the Saudi Arabian government to train their commercial pilots.
I do not know what activities the second subsidiary engaged in. They would have done well to buy into a pharmaceutical company and concentrated their efforts on the production of tranquilizers. We at Frontier Airlines could have made them rich by the end of August 1986.
Some time in the early 80’s (1982 or 1983) a plan was developed and put to work to begin a non-union airline, it was to be a “sister” airline to the real Frontier. The new airline was to be called Frontier Horizon and was to operate with 5 - 727’s into 6 new cities providing a feed to and from Frontier Airlines and in so doing retain traffic that would have gone to other carriers. Hank Lund was asked and accepted the presidency of Horizon.
Naturally there was a lot of opposition from the unions at F.A.L.
I disagree with Hank’s assessment that while Frontier made many concessions to the pilot group, A.L.P.A did not step up and deliver any substantial concessions of their own. I know Billy Walker and I know that with a little bit of patience an agreement would have been worked out.
I also know that the dispatch group would have been pleased to provide dispatch service to Horizon. We had the space and personnel to do the job at no extra cost to Horizon. We just wanted to keep the work” in house
I am sure, too, that agreements could be reached with the Flight Attendants Union and with the agents and ramp workers union as well. However, it was the machinists union - I.A.M. that no one could be certain of.
Despite all the seeming roadblocks, on a cold morning in January of 1984, Frontier Horizon was launched on it’s brief career.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, frantic efforts were being made to rescue the “heroine - Frontier Airlines”
We set up an employee stock option plan (ESOP ) Then came a TRASOP and many other types of OPS. There were plans laid to sell “Junk Bonds” to raise some capital. The only trouble with this was that we would have to pledge all our assets to back the bonds. So it went throughout all the “White Knights” , the buy-outs, the mergers, the out right buying of Frontier by another carrier. All of these plans sounded good and looked good when put on paper, but when you got to the bottom line, the employees were getting the shaft and the “saviors” controlled all the assets.
We, the coalition reps, were kept running from coast to coast. Our heads were filled with wild promises and a lot of B--- S---. We all met in Los Angeles and at 5:00 A. M. we were walking through an un-lit alley in the heart of Beverly Hills to meet with Michael Miliken, the Junk Bond King. The early hour was so that he could be in his office before the start of the stock trading day in New York. His presentation was most impressive, but, once again, away from the glitz and glamour of the great man, the plan left us with little more than a shell of an airline and a lot of worthless bonds to be redeemed should the airline tank.
Jerry O’Neil was becoming antsy over the dollar hemorrhage that was occurring at Frontier. It was worse than anyone dreamed. What was supposed to be a shortfall of a few million dollars for 1984 turned to out be between 25 and 30 million dollars. The favorable results expected from Ryland’s management did not occur, and O’Neil fired Ryland. The next man to occupy the “hot seat“ was Hank Lund.
O’Neil, Lund and most of the officer group and employees were aware that rapid and drastic measures were require to salvage the airline. Lund opposed O’Neil’s proposal to try and negotiate a deal with Frank Lorenzo, (Texas Air Corp.). Lund’s strong belief was that Lorenzo would only liquidate Frontier and he wanted no part in that. Lund approached the union workers with a request for severe pay cuts from them. That was when they finally realized that the “Money Tree” had run out of green leaves!
Officers and non-contract employees did step up to the plate and made monetary concessions. The flight dispatchers group deferred raises and over the next 2 years gave up approximately 25% of their annual salary. I know, because I am the one who negotiated the give backs and took the heat from the other members of T.W.U. The Agents, Pilots and Flight Attendants all tried to work with the company. The Machinists, however, took their orders from International headquarters and headquarters wasn’t going to give back one single thing. I recall “Rocky” Patterson trying to talk some sense into Dean Ames - the “Local” president and Dean telling him that the I.A.M. would sooner see all of Frontier’s mechanics be out of work before they would agree to any..concessions - period.
The above mentioned strategy and the search for a” White Knight” proved to be too little and too late. Hank Lund departed in April of 1985.
Next to try his hand at running an airline was Joe O’Gorman. A likeable person, who (I think ) was a shill for United. He suggested that a deal could be worked out with United Airlines and that he ( O’Gorman) would use his good offices to give it a shot.
A series of meetings took place between the Frontier pilots and their counterparts at United. Since both groups belonged to A.L.P.A. there should be no problems, right? Wrong? This is where the rape occurred that Billy Walker speaks about in his recollections. The flight attendants from both airlines met with what success I do not know. Nor am I aware of what transpired between United’s and Frontier’s agents and ramp personnel. The mechanics were in fat city. Both airline’s mechanics were represented by I.A.M. United’s Dispatchers were a part of I.A.M. while we were T.W.U. as the survivor of this, so called, merger I was waiting to hear from their dispatch section chairman. I waited and waited and finally, in a desperate attempt to find out what was happening I called Chicago to try to see how we could integrate the seniority lists. Imagine my chagrin when I was told that United’s dispatch group had heard nothing of a merger and why the hell should he want to send me a seniority list?
The buyout by Don Burr (Peoples Express) was doomed from the start. It was like trying to mix oil and water. The operating philosophies were diametrically opposed to each other. Peoples Express gave minimum in-flight services, on board ticketing, sparse meals for sale in flight and it was rumored that before the crew would open the door for the passengers to de-plane, they were made to clean the cabin for the outbound flight. This is just a rumor. Frontier was used to providing excellent service. Excellent meals, lots of leg room and flight attendants that really cared for the passengers needs. They (the Flight Attendants) were always happy to help passengers with their travel plans.
What a fiasco that plan turned out to be.
The union coalition and management kept trying to find any way of salvaging something of Frontier. But as the months went by, and we were well into 1886, it became painfully obvious that Frontier was already way, way down the tube.
I went on a much needed vacation and was in Grand Junction, Colorado when I got the news that Frontier Airlines had declared bankruptcy and had closed their doors. I was stunned. My wife and I returned to Denver as quickly as we could and my first stop was at the Frontier offices in the main hangar. It was a darkened building that greeted me. There were guards stationed around to check I.D.s and to prevent unauthorized persons from entering the premises.
Billy Walker was in contact with Frank Lorenzo, head of Texas Air Corp. Lorenzo along with Phil Bakes, president of Continental Airlines came to Denver to meet with the employees and union reps. What emerged was a takeover, coupled with a severance package that offered a little something to every one. We could accept employment at Continental fitting in at the bottom of the seniority lists or accept life-time passes on Continental plus a reduced severance pay or take $10,000.00 and forego any further claims against Continental Airlines and Texas Air Corp. Before making my decision, I went to Houston and interviewed for a dispatch position. There were too many ifs connected with the job offer. Several of the dispatchers did accept employment at Continental. Several went to American Airlines. A very few accepted the reduced severance pay and pass offer. I and a couple of others took the $10,000.00, pinned the mistletoe to our coat tails and walked away. A couple of the fellows went with FedEx and a couple went with UPS. Wherever they are I wish them a long life and much happiness.
I was not completely through with the business of liquidating Frontier. There were matters of pension funds to be distributed through the bankruptcy court, so Bill Hilbert and I along with John Osterberg played nursemaid to the fund until it was all settled and the funds were distributed and allocated according to the wishes of the recipients.
It was then that I locked the door on the ghost of what had been the “dream“, Frontier Airlines. I hid the key and began a new life for myself and family.
I cannot change the past, nor do I want to. It is over.
Nelson should have been spokesman for all of us. His oratory was always appreciated in those dark days past. However, I would take exception to his characterization as to the degree of influence he had. Nelson had a calming affect when emotions, as they often did, reached a loud crescendo. He was greatly respected by the rest of us all thrown together in the middle of the chaos.
As to his disagreeing with Hank on the matter of ALPA's failure to step up with concessions of our own, I would agree with Nelson's assessment. Also, Rocky wasn't the only union leader frustrated by his national leadership. It was a near disaster for us when ALPA's attorney placed national interest above FAL-ALPA during a side-bar session with CAL negotiators. Continental walked and we lost much of our bargaining position.
Looking back I recall the Frontier pilots having not only stepped up to the bar, but trying desperately to convince Ryland to keep our CV- 580 feeder fleet operating (or replace them with newer more efficient airplanes coming on the market). Additionally, we offered to fly the Convairs under a separate contract.
Ryland was NOT the man of the hour. He decided to scrap our feeder system and then tried competing head-to-head with UAL and CAL. We, in our little 737's, VS the wide-body intercontinental DC-10's. When I mentioned to Ryland that we would have a tough time westbound in the winter without technical stops for fuel, he assured me that it would work fine. Right!
Soon after, the coalition approached the O'Neils to plead our case. We succeeded in ridding ourselves of Mr. Ryland, but suddenly all roads led to liquidation. Hank Lund was a refreshing change, but alias too much damage had already occurred by the time Hank took over.
Gawd! What a roller coaster ride all that was. Thanks Nelson, I wish you the best always.
Nelson "flew west" on July 2, 2007 and was buried on 7/7/07 in a plain pine coffin in Denver, Colorado.
He was 79 and a person of unusual eloquence, style and character.
He became an actor after Frontier's death.
Visit his FL memorial website.
We are FLamily