Aviation Giant Sleeps At Northeast Airport

Posted: February 18, 1993

Unless you are an aviation insider, you probably wouldn't guess that the most active airline at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York is not one of the biggies, like American or USAir, but a regional airline based at Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

Let's face it. How many people even realize there is a large regional carrier at that city-owned field?

The carrier is Trans World Express. It totes up 100 departures a day from JFK. No other airline comes close.

Marc Snader, the chief pilot, notes proudly that it is an airline with close to 1,000 employees, including 270 pilots and 85 flight attendants, and has "never had a fatality."

The airline's corporate offices are in Neshaminy Interplex in Bensalem, Bucks County, but its operational heart is the 50,000 square feet of offices, shops and hangar space in Northeast Philadelphia.

From an operations center there, Trans World Express controllers dispatch, monitor and communicate with flights in and out of JFK from 20 Eastern cities, including Philadelphia - 163 flights in all.

But if the name did not come immediately to your lips, you are forgiven.

First, because, although TWE operates out of PNE (as Northeast Philadelphia Airport is identified in airline guides), it doesn't fly passengers from there. (Nor does any other airline, for that matter.)

And second, because Philadelphia's native airline has been called Trans World Express for only 14 months - and has had six different names in just the past 14 years.

Therein lies a tale.

In the beginning, 1962, it was Ransome Airlines. J. Dawson Ransome, an executive of Giles & Ransome Inc. in Bucks County, a family controlled construction-equipment business, bought a twin-engine Beechcraft and began a charter service.

Ransome had noticed that it took as long for somebody in Northeast Philadelphia or Bucks County to drive to Philadelphia International as to fly all the way to Washington, D.C. So he provided a convenient air commute to both destinations.

That worked pretty well, and Ransome, with investment help from Giles & Ransome, bought more planes and tried to establish air service to other, farther-flung destinations. In 1970, Ransome made a deal with then-regional Allegheny Airlines to bring passengers from small cities to the larger ones Allegheny served.

And so it was that Ransome Airlines became the first "Allegheny Commuter."

The planes were repainted with Allegheny Airlines emblems, and Allegheny handled the reservations. By 1979, Ransome's Allegheny Commuter was the largest domestic short-haul carrier in the industry, making 172 flights daily, serving 12 cities, and carrying more than 600,000 passengers. Its name was changed to USAir Commuter when Allegheny Airlines changed its name that year.

In 1980, Ransome built a $2.2 million, 30,000-square-foot corporate office and maintenance hangar at Northeast Philadelphia, adding to an existing 20,000-square-foot hangar.

"That was a wonderful year," remembers Snader, who has been with the airline for 14 years. "We had major plans for expansion."

That those plans never took off, Snader attributes to the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981.

That August, President Ronald Reagan fired 12,000 striking controllers. The Federal Aviation Administration required airline schedules to be cut back by 25 percent. Large carriers had to furlough pilots. But because the Allegheny Commuter routes converged on some of busiest airports, like Kennedy and Washington National Airport, it was "demolished," Snader said.

Ransome tried a couple of ways to recoup. He separated from USAir and tried to develop new markets under the old name, Ransome Airlines. When that didn't work, he persuaded Delta Airlines to develop its own commuter network, and, in 1984, Ransome Airlines became the very first Delta Connection, changing its route structure once again to meet Delta's needs.

Two years later came still another identity change. Ransome, who was 65 at the time, sold his company to Pan American World Airways, which was seeking feeder routes for its international flights out of JFK.

Airline deregulation had been rough on Pan Am, which hadn't had an operating profit since 1980. Pan Am specialized in flying passengers from other airlines overseas. But after deregulation, other airlines launched their own overseas routes.

Still, the five years that the former Ransome/Allegheny/USAir/Delta commuter line flew as Pan Am Express were glory years for the employees - especially for the pilots, Snader says.

Pan Am Express pilots flew to Los Angeles and Miami, as well as New York and Washington. On top of that, Pan Am Express was put in charge of a base in Berlin, which served Copenhagen and other European cities. About 150 of the airline's pilots have had European and cross-country experience. No other commuter airline can make that claim, says Snader.

But Pan Am, unable to solve its financial problems, folded last December. Its Pan Am Express unit was sold to Trans World Airlines for $6.8 million in cash and the assumption of unstated liabilities.

On Dec. 3, they were Pan Am. The next day, they were Trans World Express.

The company experienced an upheaval, from which it is only now beginning to emerge, Snader says. TWA wasn't in much better financial condition than Pan Am. In fact, two months after the purchase, TWA filed for Chapter 11 protection from its creditors. Trans World Express, which is separately incorporated, is not in Chapter 11, Snader notes, but there is no doubt that its future and TWA's are linked.

Thus, Trans World Express employees are waiting to see if a plan to bring a shrunken version of TWA out of its financial straits will be accepted by a U.S. Bankrupcy Court judge in New York. That plan is expected to be produced this month.

Meanwhile, every day, starting at 5:30 a.m., five or so planes that have been hangared at Northeast Philadelphia Airport overnight take off for Philadelphia International to start picking up passengers heading for international flights at JFK.

They are part of a fleet of 27 turboprop planes, carrying 19 to 50 passengers. Those not parked at or undergoing repairs in Philadelphia are likely to be in Washington or New York.

"Many people think that having a propeller on a plane makes it old- fashioned," Snader says. "But these are state-of-the-art planes with jet engines. The propeller enables them to land on shorter runways than jet-only planes."

Fritz Hinchman, manager of system control, coordinates every aspect of daily operations of all the planes from his Northeast Philadelphia control post.

Hinchman's crew is in constant touch with the pilots.

"If they think there's a problem with the plane, our maintenance dispatcher will make sure a mechanic is there when the plane lands at its destination," Hinchman says. There's someone in charge of monitoring weather, someone who makes decisions on when to cancel a flight or maybe move equipment

from one airport to another.

"It's a chess game," Hinchman says.

A game few realize is being played at an airfield in Northeast Philadelphia.

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