LIFE ON THE “END OF THE STRING” - GUMTW
The end of TWA's string in the Pacific had a little knot in it. That knot was the island of Guam, which TWA served from August 1969 to March 1975. The service began with TWA having been dealt a blow by the U.S. Commerce Department in the Pacific Route Hearings. It ended when we folded up the trans-Pacific operation in the midst of the Arab oil embargo of the mid-1970s.
Most of that time, I was the General Manager – Western Pacific, responsible for a vast hunk of beautiful blue sea with very little dry land, composed of many little islands. The largest of these is the U. S. Territory of Guam. Collectively, they are called “Micronesia”. In Greek, micro- means little and -nesia means islands.
The Pacific Route Hearings, conducted by the Civil Aeronautics Board, took place over several presidential administrations. The resulting route awards were intended to increase competition for Pan American and Northwest and to increase U. S. airline presence throughout the Pacific Basin. TWA, along with most other contenders (American, Continental, United), sought operating rights to the “mother lode” -- through Japan to Hong Kong.
Well, we got Hong Kong all right, but the hard way. No Tokyo … instead, originating at San Francisco with the “string” extending to Los Angeles, Honolulu, Guam, Okinawa,
Taipei and finally, Hong Kong. We were already operating eastbound through Europe, the Middle East and South Asia to Hong Kong. The new Pacific route award – although disappointing – provided an opportunity for TWA to provide our first round-the-world service.
To make things more of a struggle for us, we were forbidden to “change gauge” in Honolulu. That's an old railroad term that means we couldn't operate a wide-body aircraft to Honolulu and change to a narrow-body across the Pacific. So, it was Boeing 707s all the way.
The Guam and Okinawa stops on that route were the ugly duckling stops. Taipei was sort of romantic, and Honolulu and Hong Kong were glamorous. But Okinawa was seen as a just a place to offload military folks and Guam was, at best, a place to refuel and change crews.
TWA's true Pacific route was Honolulu to Guam. West of Guam is not the Pacific Ocean … it is the Philippine Sea or the China Sea. The flying time on the HNL-GUM segment was about eight hours and crossed four time zones, as well as the International Date Line. The result was that Guam was actually 20 hours different than Honolulu (minus 4, plus 24).
In that long, over-water flight, there were only two lighted runways – one at Kwajalein Island and one at Johnston Island, both U.S. military installations.
In advance of service, a team of analysts from 605 Third Avenue was sent out along the route to assess the market potential of the stations to be served. After having looked at the tin-roofed village homes and the unpretentious lifestyle, they calculated Guam would board 7 passengers a day, split between an eastbound and a westbound flight (TW742, TW743). The station was staffed and equipped accordingly, based around a ground-handling contract with Pan American to provide operational, ramp and technical support services.
TWA's few customer service people were to interact between Pan Am, the passengers and the crews. These folks were trained in the ramp-side elements of airport operations, but little training was provided in the conventional passenger handling elements. After all – they would only board a scant seven passengers a day!!
Well, there was a glitch in that market analysis -- the first day they boarded 27 passengers and it grew from there, soon adding a second daily passenger flight in each direction (TW744, TW745) and later a three-times-weekly cargo service in each direction. While handling the commercial operation, the ground staff also was trekking regularly to Anderson Air Force Base at the north end of the island to handle Military Airlift Command (MAC) transits to/from Vietnam.
The Island TWA staff and management were in a world of hurt, trying to catch up with the flaws in that preliminary market survey!
To complicate the situation, none of the flights operated in the daylight. Two of the flights were on the ground together from 7:00pm to 8:00pm (one eastbound to Honolulu, one westbound to Hong Kong). Another transited around midnight, and the fourth one transited between 5:00am and 6:00am. Staffing for the thirteen hour day, with a MULOP (multiple operation) in the evening, ate up all the manpower that was available. None of the customer service staff was on duty during the day to handle customer problems (claims, complaints, luggage problems, etc.). So, the problems magnified.
In the meantime, it was tardily realized that we needed some reservations and ticketing people to handle the growing customer base. As a stopgap, res/ticketing people were sent out on a temporary basis – at a staggering cost for hotels, meals, per diem, etc. They came from the Mainland U. S., Honolulu, Hong Kong, Tokyo and various other stations.
The islands out there had never experienced the service quality we were routinely providing, and it took a couple of years to get the staffing, equipment and training up to the level needed to handle the real-world passenger and cargo volumes created by our standards. Eventually, our B707 airline outsold and out-boarded the long-established Pan American B747 operation. They had been on the island since the days of the China Clipper flying boats and we newcomers outshined them every day.
It amazed all of us there, as well as lots of folks at the Region and at 605 Headquarters, that our flights operated with superb on-time performance. The long, round-the-world service began in New York, then Frankfurt, Geneva, Athens, Tel Aviv, Bombay, Colombo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Okinawa, Guam, Honolulu, Los Angeles and back to San Francisco.
We closed it down on March 3, 1975. The last flight had originated in the U. S. on February 28, arrived Frankfurt March 1, then to Bangkok the morning of March 2, and arriving Guam late that evening. It departed (on time) at around 12:30am on March 3. The whole staff sadly disposed of the leftover stores of our small Ambassadors Club after the departure.
Almost immediately following TWA's final flight through Guam, Vietnam fell, and the isle was overburdened with thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Our island made international news. I watched old friends reporting about the influx on international television, through the island’s CBS affiliate, KUAM.
I returned to the Island from my new St. Louis assignment in early May to take my family back to life on the Mainland. Upon entering the terminal to check in, the Pan Am agent looked up and said “Hi, boss. It's good to see you.” Of course, I wasn't (never had been) his boss. It was sort of an island honorific.
We chatted for a few minutes as he checked the bags and issued boarding passes. As I left to join the family, he said,
“You know, already we're not nearly as good as we were, now that TWA is gone”.
That could be said for a lot of airlines these days!
Graham Hollenbeck (1956 – 1983) held domestic and international positions in sales & services, personnel and training across the TWA system, and spent seven years as a management consultant involved in training, manpower development and personnel planning on the contract with Saudi Arabian Airlines.