I used to be in the commuter airline business.
Now, let's be clear. I was in the commuter airline business. I was not a commuter airline businessman. There were commuter airlines, I worked there. It was my business.
Those were heady times. I was not-long out of the service, the ink on my airplane mechanic's licenses was still wet, and I worked in those hangars down on one end of the airport, on commuter airliners. It was an era of those first hours of airline deregulation, early 80s.
Prior to that time airlines had a more-or-less locked in deal for covering air routes. You applied to the government, which regulated air routes, you were approved for a route, and there it was: Yours forever. (And to be clear, that came from a history of the government giving airlines a chance to grow. Going all the way back, to those first days of airmail, it took a government to create the commercial aviation business.)
In 1978 the regulations were changed, and if you wanted to fly an air route and charge people for travel, and you were able to do so in accordance with appropriate safety regulations: Go for it.
A lot of people looked at the situation and decided they were going to get rich in the airline business. (I had to stop and sigh after typing that sentence.)
And in this era I'm talking about, really the very early days of airline deregulation, people would find the funding, go out and buy a couple or a few six or eight seat twin engine airplanes and get to work hauling people from place to place on scheduled routes. License to print money.
It was, to my memory, nuts. People would get together with their buddies, talk a banker into a loan, manage to talk their way into a lease agreement with an airplane manufacturer, hire some kids to fly the thing (buy them shirts with the pilot stripes on the shoulders) and off they'd go: Undercapitalized and overworked.
I was a kid (who thought, at almost 24, myself a man of the world) and would get hired by these guys to keep the airplanes up.
Airplanes, you don't fix them when they break, at least that's not the master plan. You inspect airplanes, find out of something looks like it's going to break before the next time it gets looked at, and fix it then. Since these were airlines, since airlines operated under safety regulations, since these regulations required inspections to be done on time and without exception, I spent a lot of late nights in hangars inspecting six and eight seat airplanes acquired under tight budgets.
So help me, no corners were cut, but many 14 hour or longer shifts took place.
And you had to work that hard 'cause there wasn't enough money and the hope was that, if the right business came to the airline everybody would make a bucket load of dough, even the sleep-deprived mechanic in that hangar down the end of the field.
Alas, the opposite of “buckets of money” is “can't cover the bills” and those small airlines would go out of business.
No worries, again, these were the heady, early, days and as soon as one shut down another group would come together, start up another airline, take over the old airline's routes, and wait for the money to come rolling in. One would shut down. I'd lock up my tools, load 'em in the car or stash them in a nearby hangar where a still-stable business was operating and often as not have a job the next day with the replacement airline.
Somebody else's airplanes, different name on the shirt, still pulling all nighters getting those heaps ready to fly the next day.
In time, for the circles I was in, it got worse. The shutdowns would come more frequently, and the sign that it was over more, what, martially. I can recall being in one end of a hangar, in a little office lean-to built in there, talking on the phone to my boss who had, up to the day before, held the lease on the hangar. The place was cleaned out except for me and the phone (my tools already moved). As I was talking to him I was watching crowbars come in through the cracks between the hangar doors, breaking the chains there which locked them shut.
It was eviction day. “I'll see you later” I said, hung up the phone, pulled a screwdriver out of my pocket and unscrewed the phone from the wall. I stuck it under my arm and walked out the back door of the hangar as the eviction crew came in the front.
We waved at each other, by then they recognized me, and I them. The kid had been around.
It wasn't long after that I went to work for a flight school. The hours were more predictable and the pay was about the same. A few people went on to great success in the commuter airline business.
Nobody I knew, however.