EAGLE: The History of American Airlines by Robert Serling

EAGLE: The History of American Airlines

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Aviation buffs will probably delight in this thoroughgoing chronicle, but the relentlessly upbeat text provides non-enthusiasts with more detail than they are likely to want. Serling (Howard Hughes' Airline, The President's Plane Is Missing) provides a lively, anecdotal account of American and how it grew, from a fly-by-night squadron of regional carriers scrapping for US mail contracts into a globe-girdling giant. During commercial aviation's formative years in the 1920's, the author recalls, pioneer carriers (mainly, local lines operating under the aegis of Avco, a prototypical conglomerate created by E.L. Cord, who is best remembered for his classic automobiles) saw little future in the passenger business. The leadership of C.R. Smith (whose lengthy, productive career began in 1928) and the foresight of certain Roosevelt Administration aides, however, helped correct this course. WW II gave the fledgling industry a real lift, accelerating the pace of technical development and accustoming thousands of military personnel to air travel. Cyclical prosperity enabled American and its rivals to finance the transition from prop-driven craft to jetliners, but deregulation during the late 1970's introduced a wealth of uncertainties that still have many carriers flying blind. Thanks in large measure to cost-control efforts that range from the establishment of a new base at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport through two-tier labor contracts, American is in better shape than most of its competitors to weather such storms as may appear. Serling concedes, though, that the future remains iffy. As the author makes clear, American has made substantive contributions to commercial aviation over the years, e.g., the first air-traffic-control and automated reservations systems as well as the Frequent Fliers program and an initially lonely commitment to the fabled DC-3. It also employed a host of colorful characters, including pilot-author Ernest K. Gann. Unfortunately, Serling lavishes as much attention on the engineering of every plant that was ever part of the American fleet as he does on more appealing yarns. Troublesome as well are his exculpatory accounts of the company's every brush with scandal, starting with the so-called Spoils Conference in 1933 through the ill-considered phone conversation that Robert L. Crandall (American's current CEO) had with a Braniff executive, who taped what sounds very like an offer to participate in a price/fare-fixing deal. In brief, then, an exhaustive record of a major airline that will strike many readers as merely exhausting.

Pub Date: Dec. 27th, 1985
Publisher: St. Martin's