90 Years of Flying the Line: ‘Flying for a Rogue Airline’

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

This year marks the 90th anniversary of ALPA’s founding, when 24 “Key Men” pledged themselves to a higher purpose, bettering the working conditions and compensation of their fellow airline pilots.

Air Line Pilot is highlighting chapters from Flying the Line, the Association’s unofficial history, that chronicle ALPA’s founding and the early days of airline flying. Why? To remind or inform members/readers that hard-earned gains in safety didn’t happen by accident, that the “safest place on the earth” isn’t an empty motto, and that ALPA has paved the way for 90 years to advance the airline piloting profession to where it is today.

The following is excerpted from the book’s eighth chapter titled “Flying for a Rogue Airline.”

At high noon on an unseasonably warm day, more than 150 people crowded into the office of Superintendent of the Airmail Stephen A. Cisler to see the bids opened. They were bidding for a one-year contract under an interim law that would apply while Congress was in the process of writing permanent legislation eventually known as the Air Mail Act of 1935. Dave Behncke’s worst fears materialized when the final bids were posted. The major airlines suffered severe losses to the small operators, whose bids were unrealistically low. The major operators had to face the tough decision of either to compete with the small-fry by also submitting unrealistically low bids or to stand by while the small operators again filled the nation’s airways with open-cockpit biplanes.

At an absurdly low 19 and three-quarter cents per mile, Long & Harmon was the lowest bidder for the 1,125-mile route serving Brownsville and Amarillo at each terminus.

But Long first had to prove to the Post Office Department that he could actually serve the route during a probationary period ending Aug. 31, 1934. The Post Office Department agreed to pay the airline $443.88 per day for serving routes, requiring a round trip on each division daily in one of Long & Harmon’s five Stinson Reliants or in the six-passenger, single-engine Travel Air 6000. To fulfill their contract, Long & Harmon’s planes had to fly 2,250 miles every day.

Experienced airline men shook their heads. They knew that no one could make a profit flying so far for so little money without supplementing the airmail subsidy with passenger revenues.

After Harmon agreed to the purchase of a used Ford Trimotor, the little airline began aggressively advertising its new passenger service and for a brief period things improved. Had it not been for Behncke and his feisty union, Long & Harmon might be as familiar a name today as Delta or TWA. But it was not to be.

The problem was that none of their pilots were Ford-qualified. Even though there was a major depression in the country, the pool of available Trimotor-qualified pilots was fairly small. But Long & Harmon found three pilots who were Ford-qualified. At the end of June, when they received their first paychecks, they realized that the figures were far too low. Long & Harmon ignored their complaints, so the three appealed to Behncke and ALPA in faraway Chicago.

Because of ALPA’s steadfast support of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the airmail crisis, the president subsequently showed his gratitude. Decision 83 [of the National Labor Board] required airlines to compensate their pilots based on both the mileage and the time they flew. A pilot flying Long & Harmon’s Ford Trimotor might not work any more hours than one flying a Stinson Reliant, but the law required that he be paid more because the Ford flew faster.

Long & Harmon refused to comply, but the law was the law.

The only problem was, how could ALPA get the government to enforce it? The National Labor Board could only enforce its edicts through the courts. The Post Office Department, on the other hand, had no way of enforcing the law other than outright cancellation of Long & Harmon’s mail contract. This alternative was obviously unsatisfactory because it would result in putting the pilots out of work.

Then Long & Harmon solved Behncke’s dilemma.

Next Time: Retracing the origins of Dave Behncke, ALPA’s first president, who grew up on a small Midwestern farm and became the head of one of the world’s largest and most powerful labor unions.

This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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