SPLASH OF COLORS: The Self-Destruction of Braniff International by John J. Nance

SPLASH OF COLORS: The Self-Destruction of Braniff International

Email this review


A former Braniff pilot's uneven account of the aggressive, Dallas-based carrier's tailspin into Chapter XI reorganization proceedings--good on airline nuts-and-bolts, weaker and somewhat slanted on the causes of Braniff's downfall. For 15 years prior to 1980, Braniff was the one-man show of aloof, hard-driving Harding Lawrence, who catapulted the airline into the big leagues with the famous ""end of the plain plane"" media campaign, featuring flight attendants in Pucci uniforms (a brainstorm of ad whiz Mary Wells, whom Lawrence later married). Steady but moderate expansion in the 1970s culminated, with deregulation, in an explosion of new routes--domestic, transatlantic, Far East. The roof promptly fell in, as an $80 million operating profit ('78) became a $38 million loss ('79), and the worst was yet to come. Route cutbacks, salary reductions, two-for-one promotions and other gimmicks tried by new management (creditors had forced Lawrence out) all proved unsuccessful: travel agents lost confidence, passengers vanished, and competing carriers moved in for the kill. (American, Nance claims, played hardball to the point of dirty tricks.) Nance's day-by-day portrait of the airline's last few months, and the confusion that preceded its Chapter XI filing, makes absorbing reading. But his analysis of Braniff's problems invites skepticism. Though there were (unspecified) management failings, he attributes Braniff's downfall to three 1979-80 external factors: the rise in fuel costs and interest rates; decreasing rider-ship due to the economy's overall decline; and a complete collapse of the used aircraft market. Why did these combine to stagger Braniff, when other major airlines survived? Nance doesn't really explain, though he knocks Braniff's unions, creditors, and post-Lawrence management. A more balanced look would focus harder on the ""self-destruction"" factor (pegged in Nance's subtitle, but not really developed): customer service was often rotten (Braniff led all airlines in passenger complaints in 1979), and got worse as the route system mushroomed; employee morale was low, even in the good years; and the really fatal factor, a colossally mistimed route-expansion drive, was a purely internal decision. Decidedly yes-and-no.

Pub Date: Aug. 16th, 1984
Publisher: Morrow