Help From On High

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In the early summer of 1949 my psychological life was not tightly held to reality by the usual tethers. On June 19 I married the woman I loved, and a few days later I prepared to consummate a dream that I had concocted over the preceding months—to privately charter an airplane to fly forty-six students and my wife and me to Europe. My plan had been developed during the busiest year of my life: it was my first year of medical school, and I was simultaneously courting my fiancée at a campus 120 miles away. That I survived the rigors of medical school and long-distance courtship is a marvel matched only by the story I am about to tell.

Actually, my airplane idea was not mine. In the summer of 1948, as a member of the Experiment in International Living, I was one of the earliest American students to enter Germany after the Second World War. That summer all of the available passenger boats traveling to Europe quickly filled up. Somehow the American Youth Hostels procured reduced-fare air space at the last minute for student travelers, and I was one of those few who flew to Europe for the price of boat travel. It registered in my mind that I was witness to an important economic event. For the first time in history travel by air was as cheap as third-class steamer, and an additional half-month in Europe fell into the bargain! I promised myself that I would look into that in the fall.

Just before the Christmas vacation of 1948, I got a free afternoon in Chicago. With barely more than the slightest idea where to begin, I started at the top—Pan Am, TWA, and Air France. Looking as honest and grown-up as I could, I asked: “Sir, could you tell me if there would be any fare reductions available if I could fill one entire airplane with students going to Europe early in the summer and returning a couple of months later?” A negligible group discount was offered from the $800 full fare, leaving a price that was more than three times what I had paid the summer before. Discouraged, I turned to the yellow pages of the telephone book, where I discovered a number of airlines I had never heard of. I made a list of addresses starting with ‘A’ and headed for Chicago’s Loop. My first stop was Alaska Airlines and, as it turned out, I went no further.

The modest Alaska quarters more resembled the offices of a trucking company than those of an airline, and that was an appropriate analogy, since I had stumbled onto an air-freight carrier whose freight was only occasionally people. I asked my question, and the manager complimented me by taking me seriously. He asked me a few questions, consulted a scheduling chart, and said I could have an airplane that could accommodate forty-eight passengers leaving Chicago for Paris on June 23 and returning sixty-two days later for $10,500.

“$10,500 total for both flights?”

“Yes.” Quick math: The round-trip price per passenger was slightly more than $200.

“I’ll take it!” About five minutes had passed since I had come into the office. Generous terms were arranged. I had several months to recruit my student passengers before I had to pay Alaska anything more than a modest deposit. I floated out of the office an astonished, engaged-to-be-married medical student in the travel business.

I spent forty-three dollars on advertising in three college newspapers and filled our airplane within two weeks. I was married on June 19 and went off to a nearby resort hotel as stage one of our honeymoon. Stage two was to be Europe. We returned to Chicago on June 22, the day before our flight was to leave for Paris. I called Alaska Airlines to make sure everything was O.K. It wasn’t. Our airplane, routed toward Chicago from the West Coast, had been denied permission to land at Chicago’s Midway airport. In 1949 the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) regulated and directly controlled all air traffic. The people at Alaska didn’t know why permission had been denied, but they suspected that it had to do with the student passenger cargo. Why? No one knew. What to do? No one knew that either. All my passengers were planning to be at the airport for an 8:00 A.M. departure the following morning. Distraught, I took to the telephone and called each passenger to report our awful situation and promised to do everything I could to resolve the problem: “Don’t call me, I’ll call you. And stay near the phone.” The race had already begun.

The day before our flight was to leave for Paris, we learned that our plane had been denied permission to land in Chicago. Why? No one knew.

I called Alaska Airlines every twenty minutes all afternoon and into the evening. I called the airport every twenty minutes. I called the CAA repeatedly but couldn’t find out anything. I called my parents. No one knew anything, and nothing was happening. Late in the evening we opened the first bottle of wine. What was most frustrating was not being able to get information of any sort as to why the CAA had denied the flights. The Alaska Airlines officials guessed that it had to do with what was most obvious—charter travel drastically undercut commercial air fares and would ultimately threaten the large carriers. Best to quash competition early if possible. We hated to think that a federal agency was vulnerable to such machinations but had to allow that possibility. And if that was so, then the only remedy was to exert our own pressure.