Up Front: August 2006

Lost in the clouds
By Ed Martin

We grew up together, Piedmont Airlines and I. My first airplane ride was on one of its DC-3s. I was just off the farm, and the Army was sending me to journalism school in New York City. Flunk out, they told me, and we’ll put you in the infantry. In those days, that meant Vietnam, but that wasn’t why my stomach was in a knot on this particular summer morning. It was insecurity, the fear of failing.

Maybe I should have been even more afraid of falling. The Virginia mountains loomed at the end of the runway. Piedmont mechanics, with oily parts strewn on the runway, beat and banged on one of the engines. They closed the cowl, solemnly, like a casket. The pilot tried again. Smoke belched, and the plane shook like a wet dog.

As a reporter, I watched Piedmont grow and thrive over the next two decades. We seemed to have something in common. As you read our excerpt of Frank Elliott’s Piedmont: Flight of the Pacemaker in this month’s magazine, you might come to the same conclusion. And you might find in it a lesson for your business.

Self-doubt is good if it prods you to try harder. Piedmont, butt of jokes for flying vintage planes that landed at airfields not long since cow pastures, blossomed into the nation’s eighth-largest airline by the mid-1980s. It was serving nearly 90 airports in 27 states. Its on-time record was among the best. I regularly flew Piedmont. We were both products of the South, self-conscious about letting a “y’all” or “gosh” slip. Maybe that prompted us to try a little harder, as if we had something to prove. Maybe that’s why one episode stands out among its loyal fliers: the half can of Coke.

Nothing stuck in the craws of veteran Piedmont passengers like the dictate of its new owner, USAir Group, that flight attendants stretch two servings from each can rather than giving everyone a cup of ice and a full can. By then, Piedmont was flying 10 billion passenger miles a year, and the policy probably did save money. But the howl that went up over the tone the policy set helped brand USAir as an arrogant, parsimonious outsider. That the only thing it was going to try harder at was making a buck.

That reputation got a boost when USAir President and CEO Ed Colodny, a starchy New Englander, told Piedmont employees: “Warm Southern hospitality is going to be replaced with cool Northern efficiency.” Within months, Piedmont slipped from fourth to 12th of the nation’s 13 airlines in on-time flights. Since the merger, the airline has twice declared bankruptcy, stiffing tens of thousands of investors. In 2004, bad management stranded thousands of Christmas travelers. In 2005, mercifully, US Airways merged with America West Holdings, the Tempe, Ariz.-based owner of America West Airlines.

By then, we’d long since said farewell, Piedmont Airlines and I. On Aug. 4, 1989, just after 11 p.m., I boarded Flight 1493 from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach. The newspaper story I wrote that night describes the crescent moon and a 2-year-old girl saying goodbye to the darkness outside her window. Elliott’s book lifts a line from it, about flight attendant Donna James choking back tears to announce, “We’re going to miss Piedmont and all it’s stood for.” There were 101 passengers on the airline’s last departure, including me. There wasn’t a dry eye aboard. Not one, y’all.