Hitler’s defeat and the end of World War II marked enormous changes for U.S. airlines. With the end of years of shortages and rationing came an enormous pent-up demand for travel. During the war years, the airlines’ schedules had been reduced to bare skeletons, providing little service simply because the carriers had few airplanes and even fewer pilots—the military had commandeered both.
War’s end meant that the airlines could once again acquire all the airplanes they might want—not just new ones from the factory but also hundreds of used airplanes from the military at bargain prices. Before the war, the venerable Douglas DC-3 was the industry standard, with more of those 21-passenger airplanes in service throughout the world than the combined total of all the other airliners. But war’s end changed all that. The airlines could now acquire the much larger, much faster DC-4s and Lockheed Constellations. Because of their greatly increased size and speed, one of these new airplanes could do the work of six or eight DC-3s. They were far more productive. Further, they were but precursors to the far more advanced airplanes then on the drawing boards. A technological revolution was in the offing.
A revolution of a different sort was brewing in the airline boardrooms. For years, strong, charismatic individuals, most of whom had once been pilots, had headed the important airlines. The famous Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker led Eastern; Gen. C.R. Smith steered American; pilot-visionary Jack Frye headed TWA; and W.A. Patterson, a capable, no-nonsense banker, ran United. Each of these men had certain idiosyncrasies, which the pilots recognized (and sometimes used to their advantage). Rickenbacker believed that his captains were the best in the industry. They reputedly would bring their flights to destination when the weather was so bad that the other carriers cancelled. While he was a tough negotiator, Rickenbacker could usually be counted on to give his beloved captains a raise. United’s Patterson was more democratic. In his book, copilots were important, too. More than once, contract negotiations with United had produced an increase in copilot pay. They often were the best-paid in the industry. Traditionally, ALPA negotiated with one airline at a time. Whichever airline was next in line to negotiate a contract (and that was usually TWA or American) would be asked to meet the industry standard. That airline was asked to match the captains’ raise that had been negotiated on Eastern, the copilots’ raise negotiated with United, plus some improvements in working conditions. The airlines had complained long and loud about these tactics, which they called "whipsaw negotiations." Now, they determined to do something about it. They proposed industry wide bargaining, under which all pilots would be covered by one nationwide contract. Pay and working conditions on every airline in the industry would be standard. The entire airline industry would negotiate but a single contract with ALPA, and contract negotiations would occur no more frequently than once a year.
Under this arrangement, all pilots would be subject to one industry wide contract. The two rates of pay would be $l,000 per month for captains, and $300 per month for copilots. Pilots would be paid no formula pay—no gross weight pay, no mileage pay, no pay for training, no pay for weather delays, no pay for any other items that current contracts cover. A spokesman for the airline industry summed up the industry position: an airplane was an airplane was an airplane. All airplanes were pretty much the same.
At that time, the airlines had no formal programs for training their pilots. Copilots basically learned what they could from the captains with whom they flew. They were commonly considered to be trainees, under the tutelage of the captain with whom they flew. Thus, reasoned the airlines, copilots were entitled to no more than a trainee’s pay. During the war years, the airlines had had an acute shortage of pilots. The shortage was so great that meeting the Army’s need for transport would have been virtually impossible unless pilots on wartime transport duties flew more than 85 hours a month, which had long been the industry standard. After much debate and considerable soul-searching, ALPA agreed to a wartime extension. To ameliorate the shortage, and to help in the war effort, flight-time limitations would be waived for the duration of the war, and pilots might fly as many as l00 hours per month (they were sometimes prevailed upon to fly even more). And so, the airline industry proposed an increase in allowable monthly hours. The pilots’ monthly pay would be based on the assumption that all pilots could be required to fly 100 hours a month. They also proposed relaxation of the on-duty limitations.
At that time, Howard Hughes was TWA’s controlling stockholder. He and TWA President Jack Frye made an exceptional team. They were bold and inventive. Further, they had vision. TWA was the first airline to fly nonstop from coast to coast (albeit with an occasional refueling stop in Kansas City when westerly winds were strong). TWA was the first to pressurize its airplanes, the first to provide coffee freshly brewed on board, the first with in-flight movies. Hughes and Frye dreamed of round-the-world schedules. They were full of ideas. But they were novices in dealing with contract negotiations.
Industry wide contract
Bush Voights, a highly regarded TWA captain, was a member of the Negotiating Committee. He tried to intervene with Howard Hughes to persuade him to break with the industry. Hughes had often asked Voights to be his copilot when he flew a new airplane or engaged in some flying adventure. Other captains asked Richter for his help. But to no avail. While Richter had returned to his former desk at TWA, he appeared to have been scorned of his authority. The Negotiating Committee could find no easy way out of the dilemma. It could capitulate and accept what Damon had offered. It could continue the fruitless negotiations forever. Or it could call a strike on the airline. And so, with great reluctance, the Negotiating Committee recommended a strike. It would be the first real strike in the U.S. airline industry, and a strike for which neither side was well prepared. The TWA pilots had authorized a strike on March 26, 1946, by an 812–9 margin.
The pilots’ Negotiating Committee, together with the TWA Master Executive Council, announced the strike, stating that the airline would be shut down as of Oct. 21, 1946. And then the problems began. Although the pilots in general agreed that something drastic must be done, to some the idea of a strike was abhorrent. We consider ourselves to be professional people, they argued. True professionals do not strike. (This was well before the day when strikes were called by teachers, nurses, doctors, and various other professionals.) Many pilots, of course, feared that the company might try to break the strike. It could operate some flights using management personnel, and it might persuade some pilots to join their ranks. The strike could disintegrate. Some pilots questioned how they would get home. If the strike began when they were on a flight to Detroit, how would they get to their home base in Kansas City? And what about the pilots stationed in Frankfurt, Rome, and Cairo? Questions concerning money abounded.
The strike begins
For several days, ALPA leaders discussed the importance of strike benefits. After all, they reasoned, the TWA That they alone should bear the trauma and uncertainties caused by a strike, in addition to all of the financial costs, was simply not fair. Eventually, the ALPA leaders voted to pay benefits to the striking pilots. The actual amounts voted were minimal, but the ALPA board members felt that these amounts were about all that the nonstriking pilots on the other airlines would be willing to contribute. But a significant precedent was established: ALPA would pay strike benefits to pilots on an authorized strike. Persuading many pilots to pay their strike assessment was difficult. ALPA had virtually nothing in its treasury, and the strike assessment funds were slow in coming in—so slow that they were not paid to the striking TWA pilots until many months after the strike had been settled.
While the financial pressures on many of the pilots were substantial, for many of the hostesses, they were severe. Poorly paid, they lived from one paycheck to the next. And when those paychecks stopped coming, the hostesses could not pay the rent. Bob Overman, a well-liked, senior captain in Kansas City, addressed that problem. At a general meeting of all Kansas City pilots, he described the seriousness of the problem. Then he passed the hat, asking every pilot who possibly could do so to contribute. Emergency loans were made to those pilots and hostesses who were truly in distress. And thus began the first airline credit union in America. Not only did TWA formally establish a credit union, ALPA did likewise. Further, ALPA members in general began to appreciate the value of an emergency plan. ALPA’s Board of Directors took a realistic look at the Association’s finances and bolstered them. Then, perhaps for the first time, the pilots recognized the importance of a realistic strike fund—not just pious hopes that striking pilots could somehow be compensated, but actual funds on hand, which could be useful in contract negotiations, since their existence could convince recalcitrant management that a strike could actually take place. And, of course, funds could be sent quickly to striking pilots in the event a strike actually was called.
Capt. Ruppenthal was a member of the TWA MEC during the strike and later served on the pilots’ Negotiating Committee for various contracts, as MEC chairman, and as executive vice-president of ALPA for a short time. He later earned a Ph.D. and taught at Stanford University.