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A MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

Published Oct. 6, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

They wore uniforms, but they considered themselves a family.

They were survivors of airlines that failed _ Eastern, Pan Am, Braniff and countless others _ but they kept coming back to the business they loved.

They joked that they had lost their wings, so they named their new airline after the kiwi bird, a shy, shaggy creature that could not fly.

The bird was supposed to be something of an inside joke. It became a symbol of their fate.

They were longtime victims of the brutal ups and downs in the airline industry. Some lost their jobs under Frank Lorenzo and his apocalyptic dreams for Eastern. Others went on unemployment after Pan Am lost its course. They worked at so many airlines they cannot remember them all. To them, stories about airlines always seem to end at Chapter 11.

Today, the Tampa employees of KIWI International Airlines are without jobs, doubtful that their company will return. The Newark-based carrier filed for reorganization in bankruptcy court last week and abruptly pulled out of Florida. KIWI's president vows the company will be back. But ticket agents in Tampa have heard those kind of promises before. They have been burned too many times.

Talk with the KIWI workers in Tampa and you will understand the magical lure of the airline industry, why they kept coming back despite the odds of another bankruptcy or more layoffs.

While they cleaned out their offices last week, the KIWI workers spoke lovingly of the airlines that had betrayed them and the seductive industry that kept them coming back for more.

As KIWI operations supervisor Mark Peterson walked through the airport last week, friends from other airlines joked that he had "wrecked another one." Those same friends had often griped about their companies, but Peterson knew better.

He would tell them, "You better love it while you can."

The KIWI Mission Statement: To provide long-term economic opportunity with dignity and justice for all owners.

KIWI was supposed to be different.

Its founders were former Eastern pilots who wanted another chance. They would help former colleagues who had lost jobs under Lorenzo and still dreamed of working for an airline.

The company chose to fly Boeing 727s, gas-guzzling beasts that other airlines were discarding.

But the planes had a unique appeal. They required three cockpit crew members instead of the usual two, which meant even more Eastern pilots could be hired.

Employees were expected to invest $5,000 to $50,000, but that brought ownership that made everyone work harder. They volunteered their free time to overhaul the planes. Some even brought old toothbrushes to clean the toilets.

The fleet was so small that employees gave the planes nicknames. Plane No. 264 was "the hangar queen" because it was often down for maintenance. No. 719 was "the dog" because the galleys were backwards and the front door was hard to open.

But they loved their airline. The employees had a saying: "Kiwis take care of kiwis."

Robert A. Young lost his job in the Eastern strike in 1989, then went to Northwest, then applied at KIWI. He had no experience as a ticket agent, but KIWI hired him anyway and let him train on the job.

"We had big hearts, we had all been displaced," Young said. "We had humility."

Salaries were generous. If George Bailey had gone to another airline when he joined KIWI, he probably would have earned the lowest starting salary, despite his 30 years of experience. But KIWI paid him at the top of the scale.

"That was part of the concept, to keep professionals well-paid," said Peterson, 38. "But in retrospect, the money might have been too much."

Mission Statement No. 5 _ KIWI is an entrepreneurial company whose success is linked to a culture of earning and loving respect, which recognizes the absolute need for consistent profitability.

Investing in the company was an easy decision for the employees because they believed in the founders and had a deep love for the airline business.

They felt a rush when they got a plane off on time, when a customer smiled, when a mechanic saluted and the plane roared away. They loved the perks: free flight passes and generous benefits.

The business had treated them well. When Young was a ramp worker for Eastern, he had a good salary, great benefits and an employee flight pass that let him take his kids around the world. He went skiing in Austria and whitewater rafting in the West.

"I had fun and made lots of money," he said, and then broke into a song, a modified version of the Glenn Frey tune about drug smugglers. "It's the lure of easy money, it's the airline blues!"

Young had worked some lousy jobs _ sweeping kitchen floors and factory work. Nothing was as much fun as working for an airline.

It was especially fun in Tampa. Station manager Sammie Wurmser, a 57-year-old grandmother with 20 years behind the counter for Eastern, was so popular with KIWI employees that they called her Mom. The atmosphere was fun but dignified. Some no-frills airlines were wearing polo shirts, but KIWI workers still wore ties and snappy uniforms.

Loyal passengers raved about the service. Conde Nast Traveler readers named it the best airline of 1994. One happy customer even gave Tampa employees an inflatable kiwi bird.

The employees bought into the founders' dream _ to offer premium food and top-notch service at a time when other airlines were cutting back.

"It sounded like a real good plan," said Wurmser. "Everybody was throwing their money in."

No. 6 _ As individually responsible owners, all Kiwis pledge to do no harm to the company or to each other, nor to tolerate those who would.

Then KIWI's troubles began to mount.

The airline's fares had been relatively low, but deep-discount carriers such as ValuJet forced them even lower. KIWI had to match the rock-bottom fares, but it was difficult to be profitable.

The founders got into a power struggle and fired president Robert Iverson. The company went through four leaders in a year.

"Like a family, everybody started bickering," said Wurmser. The pilots had provided the early vision, but many employees felt the pilots didn't have the business sense to run the company.

"Pilots are good for one thing _ flying airplanes," Wurmser grumbled last week.

The company that once promised "long-term economic opportunity" for employees had to play the same game as other airlines. It began hiring temporary employees to work for lower wages and no benefits. KIWI had paid full-timers about $12 an hour to work behind the counter, but the temps would do it for $8.

"The younger generation today has accepted $7 or $8 an hour," said Bailey. "They're in it because they want to travel. They're not thinking about 30 years or 40 years down the road."

A new regime led by former Pan Am vice president Jerry Murphy tried to boost morale. One of the planes got a special paint scheme that was supposed to represent the "spirit of KIWI." But the wiggly purple lines were so unpopular that employees joked the plane had been a victim of vandals in Newark.

The company's close-knit culture began to fray.

The managers at the Newark headquarters began to fuss at Wurmser, saying she was too lenient with the Tampa staff.

"They say I'm not tough enough," she said. "They think you should rule with an iron fist."

Some employees felt Headquarters had lost touch.

"The present management came in and decided we were going to be a business, not a family," says Jo Anne Keller, a chief agent in Tampa. "We went from being owners to being employees."

About 3 p.m. Monday, the employees at KIWI's Tampa ticket counter got the bad news. The company was filing for reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy laws. The company hopes to return to Florida this winter. But the Tampa workers don't have much hope. Most say they're fed up with the airline industry. They want to try something else.

Young has been studying to become a massage therapist and wants to open a massage studio in Dunedin. Keller wants to study radiology. Peterson wants to try a more technical job or become an airport police officer. He loves working at airports.

On Thursday, they were joking about throwing darts at the inflatable bird. A sign taped to the wall said "This job is much easier now that we have all lost hope."

Wurmser, who got her real estate license after Eastern folded, figures she will move to North Florida and sell homes.

Bailey isn't sure what he'll do.

"We thought like our fathers thought _ that we had a job for life," he says. "The industry is not stable. But it's all we know.'

No. 10 _ KIWI's motto is "Whatever it takes."

Up next:BIRTHS
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