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By Lou Washington

Yesterday Delta Airlines announced that Comair, one of Delta’s regional feeder subsidiary airlines would cease operations on 29 September of this year.

Here in Cincinnati, Comair is something of a legend. When I moved to Cincinnati in the very early 1980’s, Comair was comprised of a handful of small twin engine prop aircraft. They flew to Cleveland and other nearby cities. Locally, those of us who flew frequently out of CVG knew that flying on Comair was not going to be like taking a wide-body to Hawaii. Flying Comair was for business folks who were getting business done here in the midwest.

Locally the primary carrier was Delta. Both airlines experienced great growth during the 80’s, both airlines upgraded their fleets and expanded their routes. Delta spent tons of money expanding their facilities here in Cincinnati and eventually made this one of their hubs with a wide array of international flights to Europe.

Comair built a new headquarters building and at a point was by some measures one of the largest airlines in the country. They partnered with Delta and began aligning their route structure with Delta to facilitate the classic hub and spoke operation that serves airlines today.

At a point, Delta purchased Comair and for many, I think this was indeed the beginning of the end for the airline.

This story has been repeated with slight variations now for decades.

TWA purchased Ozark Airlines to gain control of one of their primary feeders in St Louis. Soon after that occurred, the level of service extended to smaller markets well served by Ozark for many years began to deteriorate.

My own hometown of Columbia Missouri was a primary example. Ozark provided non-stop DC-9 (Boeing 717) service to St Louis, Denver, Kansas City and one stop service to Chicago, Washington DC and other destinations. After Ozark was swallowed up, local service to Columbia MO was reduced to a couple of daily flights to St Louis using De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft.

It did not take long for TWA to disappear from the scene with rapacious American Airlines gobbling them up a few years later. The details of that horrendous acquisition make for their own story.

50 Seat CRJ200

In the Delta announcement, the reason for the shut down was based on Comair’s use of 50 seat regional jets. Delta suggested these could not be operated profitably. Delta went on to explain that ridding themselves of Comair would allow them to concentrate on their major route structure served by their larger aircraft.

I’m sure TWA and later American had similar feelings about abandoning the small markets served by Ozark.

Some would say this is the fruit of deregulation. I’m not sure it’s that simple.

I do know this. Comair and Ozark operated profitably on their own, they served thousands of passengers in many smaller markets. They employed hundreds of pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, ticketing agents baggage handlers and others. In other words they did know what they were doing, they knew how to operate in an environment their larger siblings chose to ignore or avoid.

Then, they were bought up, integrated into the operations of much larger, more complex and diverse enterprises. When the management of those enterprises decided that flying into smaller markets was not profitable, they abandoned them.

They bought businesses they did not understand and after failing to learn from those businesses they listened to their finance guys and bailed.

Some will call this the free market at work. If that is true, then the free market is not working very well.

By Lou Washington

The Farnborough air show closed recently and we were once again treated to a daily box score of Boeing orders versus Airbus orders.  This year Boeing seemed to emerge as the overall winner.

I believe this ongoing competition is really of more interest to the media than it is to the trade professionals and industry analysts active in the aerospace arena. I think that portion of the plane riding public that actually cares about the kind of airplane they are riding on, tends to select aircraft equipment based on specific models more than the name of the manufacturer.

It is an interesting business study to watch how these two companies behave. There are few industries where there are only two dominant, worldwide vendors that square off against each other over virtually every selling opportunity that arises. As the light or regional jet market shows continued growth and an increasing number of players, the heavyweight division remains the undisputed territory of these two giants.

The flying public is doubtless better off with both of these guys operating in a perpetual dead heat. There is little doubt in my mind that Boeing is a better company because Airbus has forced them to be better via the marketplace.  On the other hand, Airbus has benefited from Boeing breaking ground and setting the bar in commercial aviation over the last 75 years or so. Competition is a beautiful thing when it works.

Consider the more recent past ten years. At the beginning of the century, both companies were considering potential new programs. Both had some form of fuel-efficient new design under consideration. Boeing also had the near mach Sonic Cruiser project. Airbus had the gargantuan A380 model under consideration.

It had to be a tough decision. It had to be a “bet the company” type decision that would doubtless be revisited many, many times over the initial years of development.

In the end, Boeing chose the Dreamliner fuel miser program and Airbus moved ahead with the A380. For consumers it was the best of all possible outcomes. For the two companies, I believe the selection was best of all as well.

Boeing opted for a completely new airplane, built-in a wholly new manner utilizing techniques never before used. Boeing developed a worldwide supply chain and outsourcing process that was far removed from anything they had done prior to the 787 program.

Airbus learned to build the biggest passenger transport aircraft ever flown.

Both companies took up a challenge that would at least teach them how to do something they didn’t already know how to do. This means they made an investment that would pay dividends well beyond the life of the program itself. Even if the programs were not successful, each would come out with a level of expertise in an area previously unknown by them.

For all the publicity about how much of a problem Boeing had with their world-wide supply chain and component manufacturing outsourced to companies half a world away, Boeing now has people successfully working on the 787 in countries all over the planet. All of those countries have national flag carriers and they all buy airplanes.

Additionally, Boeing has learned how to build with rivet-less composites.  This is a radical departure from the construction of traditional aluminum and titanium skinned airframes.  Doubtless the whole area of lightweight, high strength materials will be important to aerospace manufacturers for a long time.

When you look at the A380, you have to be impressed with the sheer size of the thing. I’ve seen the A380 here in Cincinnati. Airbus arranged a fly over at the GE Aircraft Engine plant a couple of years ago during a promotional tour of the new plane. Seeing it during the low-level fly by really gave you some perspective. This airplane is just huge.

Time will tell if Airbus made a smart decision in terms of the market for this plane, but meanwhile, the plane is doing a great job linking up Asia with Europe and North America. So we, the flying public, win because we have two ground breaking aircraft that are there to take us where we want to go.

By Lou Washington

First off, I apologize to all of my readers who have checked in on my site only to find I’ve not taken the time to post anything new. I have heard about, read about and even laughed about writer’s block, but until now, I’ve never experienced it.

Unlike many folks who suffer from this, I actually know why I’m coming up empty when I sit down at the key board. In my case there is a task I’ve been avoiding, a piece unwritten if you will. Actually, an article that I would rather not write at all.

On May 19th of this year my father passed away. It was not a huge surprise, he was suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s, he was 91 years old and had an array of medical challenges that would finally conspire to end his life. My mother was by his side when he went and I was lucky enough to see him for a few minutes before he passed away.

My brother Bill had put together a draft obituary. This was an extremely thoughtful act and he generously asked me to take a look at it and make any changes I felt were necessary. I was glad I had the chance to make a small contribution to our celebration of my father’s life.

But, in the end, it was an obit and as such was just a kind of inventory of significant events in Dad’s life.

Somewhere in my mind I knew I had to write something more evolved than an obit. I had to come to terms about how I felt about this man and what he meant to me. I am not going to turn this piece into a syrupy tribute or provide stories about what a nice guy he was. I would like to share one quick story, which to me, sort of puts things into perspective as far as my feelings about my dad.

When I was a very young person, I mean pre-school age, there was a monster at large. The monster seemed to be particularly fond of children. While adults were not spared, the beast did seem to prefer to target kids.

I have very clear memories of a long hot summer, staying inside, staying away from groups of other kids and of the TV announcements. They were, for me, quite disturbing because they showed the end result of what this monster was capable of.

These ads would feature pictures of large hospital wards with row after row of “Iron Lung” breathing assist devices, each holding a little child who could no longer breath for themselves. I could not imagine a more horrible fate then finding myself confined to one of these machines.

Of course the monster I’m talking about here is Polio. Year after year, summer after summer Polio would visit families and in it’s wake leave a child unable to walk, unable to breath or with minimal use of their legs.

Finally, it came to pass that a vaccine was developed. My father was a pediatrician so I know he was well aware of the developments in this area. I can well imagine how he must have been heartened by each story of progress and frustrated by each set back.

And then, I can clearly remember him coming home one evening with his medical kit and a small package. I can remember him giving me the shot and telling me I didn’t need to worry anymore about iron lungs, braces or the other artifacts of a life with polio.

My dad slew this monster and he saved my life. From that day on, my dad was my hero.

By the way, he was a really nice guy too!

Postscript: If you would like to read more about the story of Polio in the early fifties, I would recommend Polio –  an American Story by David Oshinsky.

July 2012
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