Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



A note to readers: Last week, in part one of this reminiscence, I covered some of the critical milestones of the first half of my first 50 years in travel journalism. In part two below, I cover the rest of the saga thus far. It ranges from the dawn of the now-grounded supersonic era to the pervasive worldwide climate of terrorism.

December 22, 2005 -- In the early 1970s, I went on a press trip to Bristol, England, and Toulouse, France, for a first-hand look at the slender, needled-nosed Concorde, the first supersonic jetliner, then under construction by joint British–French interests.

Commercial Concorde service would eventually begin in 1976. An Air France flight was the first across the Atlantic while British Airways operated its first Concorde service from London to Bahrain. I flew this speedy phenomenon three or four times during the next few decades. The Concorde was recently retired and I'm sorry that there's no supersonic successor in sight.

Later that decade, driven by a tide of consumerism and the unexpected support of United Airlines, the domestic carriers were deregulated by Congress. The reviews were mixed. Alfred Kahn, chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), saw new competition, lower fares, new carriers, more choices for the traveler and improved service levels. Others, like myself, were skeptical. The end product, we thought, would ultimately lead to a handful of mega-carriers, higher airfares and reduced service standards. More than 100 airlines took shape in the first years of deregulation. Only America West has survived. Of course, fares did go down for flexible leisure travelers, but the must-fly sky warrior continued to pay through the nose and to subsidize his/her low-fare companions.

How will history judge deregulation? Probably with a yawn. But it is notable that the CAB was axed, or "sunset," in 1984 and that ended decades of controversy that included an iron-fisted control over fares and schedules. There were few mourners when the CAB disappeared.

Until the mid-sixties, airfares on routes beyond the United States were controlled in a vise-like manner by the cartel known as the International Air Transport Association (IATA). About that time, however, one of the less-conspicuous IATA members, El Al, decided it needed special winter fares to fill its seats, particularly between New York and Tel Aviv. El Al's introduction of Group Inclusive Tour fares set off a crisis at IATA that precipitated an emergency meeting in Rome.

I was the only reporter to attend and I was not welcome, to say the least. Cartels abhor the light of disclosure. El Al would eventually win during that 10-day Roman holiday, a victory that would lead to an airline marketing frenzy of promotional tariffs. This development would also greatly modify the look of leisure travel and lead to more liberal pricing, not only on international routes, but also within the United States.

During the pre-deregulation era, I met or interviewed U.S. commercial aviation pioneers such as Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace who was instrumental in launching Eastern Airlines. Rickenbacker was a crusty, hard-bitten entrepreneur who felt strongly that the carriers were doing the passengers a favor by ferrying them across the skies. That philosophy, unfortunately, has endured to this day. I also ran across most of the others of this select brotherhood, including C.R. Smith of American Airlines, William A. Patterson of United Airlines, Box Six of Continental and Juan Trippe of Pan Am, whom I mentioned last week. I missed C.E. Woolman of Delta.

I'm often asked to compare these visionaries with the executives who succeeded them before, during and just after deregulation in 1978. It's a tricky call to make because the times have changed, the airline business has changed and the role of airline chief executives has changed. From getting an airline off the ground to lining your pocket with millions, the motivation between then and now is certainly no longer recognizable.

In the late summer of 1979, just a year or two after the end of China's so-called Cultural Revolution, I spent 22 days in China and Inner Mongolia. This fascinating experience was, in effect, an early glimpse into what has by now evolved into an emerging world power. If I were at that stage of my life where I had to learn another language, it would unquestionably be Chinese. In fact, my six-year-old daughter takes two separate Mandarin courses each week.

Not long after deregulation and months before the advent of the revolutionary mileage plans, I persuaded my then-parent company, a division of Dun & Bradstreet, to fund the start-up of Frequent Flyer magazine, which would be distributed with the OAG North American Pocket Flight Guide. Volume 1, Number 1, was dated September, 1980. American and United, in that order, jumped into the frequent-flyer fray in the spring of 1981. Talk about timing! I'd rather be lucky than smart!

As a matter of interest to this particular audience, Joe Brancatelli began to freelance and consult for Frequent Flyer in 1983. His first stories were not about airlines or hotels, but about personal computers and telecommunications. He joined Flyer full–time as executive editor in 1990, a position he held for three years.

By 1985, Frequent Flyer would be identified as one of the hottest consumer publications in several categories by Folio, the trade journal of the magazine industry. And there is an identifiable correlation between the history of Frequent Flyer magazine and the influence of deregulation on the U.S. airline industry, which had once been the bedrock of the global air-transportation system. As the pre-deregulation airlines consolidated and otherwise fell by the wayside in the 1980s and 1990s, the magazine's advertising revenues plummeted accordingly. By middle of the 1990s, Frequent Flyer, on a high only ten years earlier, was a shadow of its robust former self. It would eventually re-emerge as a diminished product on the Web. A similar fate has met our once-proud airline industry.

Several years ago, I had lunch with a colleague who quizzed me on my travel patterns over the years. He subsequently calculated that I had traveled somewhere in the vicinity of three million miles. That's a real-life number, not an estimate inflated by bonus miles and other fripperies.

The far-reaching terror attacks of September 11, 2001, exaggerated and accelerated both the woes of the airlines and the overall economy. The events also affirmed the vulnerability of the travel industry and its diverse components to the blows dealt by harsh realities such as war, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorism. Travel is also unusually sensitive to movements in the U.S. economy and its global partners. The unwritten understanding has always been that an economic downturn affects travel up to six months before any of the other major market categories. And travel may take that much longer to recover.

Of course, 2005 has shaped up as the all-time record year for travel. According to the London-based World Travel & Tourism Council, travel now ranks as the world's Number 1 industry in terms of people employed. Travel and tourism also rank high in dollar volume.

The prognostications for 2006 are also favorable. Just look at the insane hotel rates being charged in New York City. I haven't experienced anything like it in my half-century in travel, which I believe encompasses the halcyon days of our industry.

But who knows? Maybe the best is yet to come.

Copyright © 2001-2005 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.