Flying High at the Airport by MBomis
In 1968, the Salt Lake Municipal Airport was renamed the “Salt Lake City International Airport.” The new name was symbolic of its ever-expanding scope.
Just as the Chamber helped give birth to Salt Lake’s first cinder airfield, it continued to nurture its growth to maturity in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. For example, from 1975 to 1980 the airport expanded to 7,500 acres. In 1978, the airport’s annual payroll was $25 million.
The airport’s growth demanded new facilities and the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce was at the forefront of finding funds for them. For example, the Chamber supported a successful 1979 bond election that provided $42 million to upgrade the airport. The bond help modernize the main terminal building to allow Jetway connections directly from the concourse to planes. Previously, passengers had to brave the outside weather to board planes. It also connected the main terminal to the Western Airlines terminal, built in 1978, and improved roads including a connection to Interstate 80.
The expansion project was said to have been the biggest and costliest single capital improvement of a city-operated facility in Salt Lake’s history.
The Chamber was also very active with the Utah Air Travel Commission. Along with representatives from the State of Utah and Salt Lake City government, the Chamber appointed five members to the panel to help improve airline service.
Before airline deregulation, communities competed in an exhaustive procedure to attract additional airlines and service to airports. The Civil Aeronautics Board and Federal Aviation Administration doled out perks at meetings in Washington, D.C., where communities and airlines could make a case for increased service. Early on, Salt Lake City had “average service” in the number of flights and connections provided by Western Airlines, United Airlines, and Frontier Airlines. Every flight east would stop at either Denver’s Stapleton Airport or Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
“We had too few flights and too many flights that necessitated a connection,” Fred Ball, the Chamber’s top executive, said of the time.
Z. (Bud) Kastler of Mountain Fuel Supply was the Chamber representative on the Air Travel Commission who helped push for more transcontinental carriers in the Salt Lake market. Under Kastler’s leadership, several cases for expansion were taken to Washington. American Airlines eventually entered the market, but did not plan any westbound service. The airline flew one flight to Dallas and three to Chicago. United increased service because of new competition, but still only flew to San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago on direct non-stops. No carriers connected directly to major Eastern airports.
Even with the additional flights and the addition of Eastern, TWA, and Texas International Airlines, with its cheap “peanuts fares,” the commission wanted better service. The use of “hub” locations by airlines was just developing. Local officials met with Larry Lee, a native Utahn and top executive with Western Airlines, about creating a Western hub at Salt Lake City. By February 1982, the deal was done.
“Larry Lee called a press conference to announce the approval and that one occasion was the most significant occurrence in the history of air travel service in the state of Utah. Many new direct, non-stop flights were added,” Ball wrote.
Not all, including many in the airline industry, first saw it that way. The Wall Street Journal carried the headline “Is Salt Lake City a Mistake?” after the announcement. But within a few years, no one was questioning the move. Western was flying high on record profits and passenger numbers and flights at Salt Lake International reached all-time highs. By 1983, Salt Lake International moved from twenty-sixth place among the nation’s airports for number of connections to thirteenth.
By 1984, a Western Airlines official told the Chamber’s board of governors that Western employed 2,000 at its Salt Lake operations and had a monthly payroll of $4 million. Then, the hub serviced 22 percent of Western passengers. In 1987, Western merged with Delta Airlines and the Salt Lake hub operations took on even greater significance. In 2002, the hub was Delta’s third largest, with 125 daily scheduled flights. In all, about 726 flights of all aircraft take off from the airport each day.
Growth and an unending construction schedule seem to be the norm at the airport into the 21st Century. In 2001, the airport served 18.8 million passengers, and was ranked the 24th busiest airport in the nation and 38th busiest in the world. It ranks as Utah’s fourth largest employer with 12,500 workers. The airport has four runways and offers non-stop service to 70 cities. The airport is also home to 450 general aviation aircraft. A still unfulfilled dream of Salt Lake International boosters is direct international service to Europe and/or Asia.
Along with the expansion of a major carrier in Salt Lake, the Chamber also takes some credit for helping a home-grown airline get off the ground. David Neeleman, a young student at Salt Lake City’s East High School, began a little air charter business arranging flights between Utah and Hawaii. He approached June and Mitch Morris of Morris Travel about starting a low-cost, no-frills airline. The Chamber’s Aviation Committee endorsed the idea. Borrowing the Southwest Airlines model, Morris Air started with just two planes.
Soon June Morris became the nation’s only female chief executive officer in the jet airline business. By 1993, she presided over a work force of 2,000, a fleet of 21 Boeing 737-300 airliners and served 27 cities with 1,000 flights a week. Southwest Airlines purchased Morris Air in 1993 and integrated Morris’ Salt Lake hub into its operations. That same year, the Chamber honored June Morris with its Athena businesswoman award.
Sources: Salt Lake International Airport Web site, http://www.slcairport.com. Typescript of Fred Ball at Chamber offices. Deseret News, 16 February 1971, 31 August 1971, 3 April 1975, 4 Feb 1976, 17 Feb 1976, 2 Dec 1976, 19 April 1978, 26 April 1978, 28 October 1982, 3 November 1983, 26 October 1984. Salt Lake Tribune, 1 December 1974. Peg McEntee, “Utah’s Morris Air is Strong Competitor in Western Market,” Associated Press, 12 November 1993.
You are asking by now, who is Laura Lee? What is her relationship with Lawrence H. “Larry” Lee? Why did she publish his autobiography? What does she have to do with Western Airlines?
These are great questions, and I’ll try to answer them. I became Laura Lee in May of 1981 when I married Larry’s younger son, Randolph “Randy” Lee. Here’s a photo of us at our wedding in Portland, at the home of Phil and Ginger Stevens. We were married on May 22, just 11 days after I joined Western Airlines. My first job was working for Herb Jungemann in Denver Reservations.
When President Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers, things were in chaos for the airline industry. Flights were reduced, and I was furloughed from my job in Reservations. Randy and I took the opportunity to move back to the Salt Lake City area so that he could continue college; at BYU-Provo initially, which is where we had met, and then University of Utah where he received both his BS and MBA. I was eventually recalled to airport operations at the Salt Lake City airport. I worked on the ticket counter, gates, operations/departure control, as a supervisor on the ticket counter and gates, as a training instructor, and at the time of the merger with Delta Air Lines, I was the assistant manager for Passenger and Cargo Services Training out of LAXGO. (Western’s Los Angeles General Office) On occasion, I still see people at the airport in SLC, now supervisors or managers, that I had the privilege of training as newly hired employees. This always brings a smile to my face! 🙂
Another thing I enjoyed was when other employees would ask how Larry was doing. And, since I worked in Central Training and trained and knew people from all over the system, often when Larry was at an airport, an employee at the ticket counter or gates would ask him how I was doing! From the very beginning, we had a fine rapport.
I took on the project of publishing Larry’s autobiography for many reasons:
- It’s an amazing story of teamwork, dedication and truly “riding for the brand.” The term “riding for the brand” has its origin in the West. Cowboys would often be loyal to the ranch, or the “brand,” even if they disagreed with a current owner. The “brand” was a unique symbol and represented the values and traditions of the ranch.
- Salt Lake City continues to experience growth and the economy is vibrant. Without Larry’s work on the “hub,” would Salt Lake City have been in the position to host the 2002 Winter Olympics? Truly, Salt Lake City has never been host to a grander event! Perhaps, after the completion of the new airport, the city will once again host the Olympics.
- Without Larry’s invitation to take on more responsibilities, would Jerry Grinstein have had the experience necessary to guide Delta Air Lines through its own bankruptcy? Truly these two men have been GIANTS on behalf of Utah business!
- Management CAN work with unions to accomplish great things. This takes vision and both sides must feel represented and invested in the outcome. Larry implemented profit sharing for the employees, and also gave Western’s unions the chance to be represented on the board of directors. This was unheard of at that time.
- Corporate America is full of raiders and self-interest. Larry’s story is just the opposite. He led by example, took pay cuts, and truly brought his beloved Airline back from the edge of bankruptcy and into historic profitability.
- I want Larry’s posterity to understand more about his leadership, his life’s work, his values and his faith.