Published in August 2015 issue
By David H. Stringer
Like all the local service airlines, Allegheny grew slowly and steadily under the watchful guidance of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The first adjustments to the route map came in 1953, when the airline terminated service to Cincinnati and ended that segment at Huntington, West Virginia/Ashland, Kentucky, instead. At the same time, Allegheny added to its system Cleveland, Ohio—a center of American industrial strength and a good choice for Allegheny’s westernmost terminal.
Les Barnes, the airline’s new president, was passionate about Allegheny and he took his role as leader of the company very seriously. From the start of his presidency he embarked on a program to boost passenger boardings while keeping costs down. He added extra station personnel, more than doubled the advertising budget, spruced up the brand image by redesigning the aircraft livery, and enforced strict regulations on the personal appearance of customer-contact personnel. He added three more DC-3s to the fleet and increased scheduled departures by more than 20%.
Barnes visited every city served by the airline, meeting with employees and local citizens. He chatted with passengers in flight, and held assemblies every three months with employees in Pittsburgh, Newark, and Washington, DC. Each letter of customer complaint was personally answered by President Leslie O. Barnes.
Thanks to this proactive course of action, traffic increased 30% during the summer months of 1954 over the previous year, and a 1952 yearend deficit was transformed into a 1953 yearend profit.
WHERE THE HELL IS WILLIAMSPORT?
Williamsport, in north-central Pennsylvania, was home to a diversified group of industries in the mid-1950’s. Both TWA and Capital Airlines served the city, but not very well. Allegheny was the principal carrier and the only one that transported Williamsporters directly to New York. Barnes increased the number of Allegheny departures out of Williamsport from eight a day to 16, and the company saw a concurrent rise in the number of boarding passengers.
At one of his town meetings in the city, Barnes faced businesspeople who shared complaints and compliments. One gentleman, a purchasing agent for a local manufacturer, stood up. “All I’ve got to say is that you pulled us out of a hell of a hole,” he said. Reporting on the 1954 meeting, Walter Kilrain of American Aviation magazine went on to say that the city had felt isolated before Allegheny ramped up service. The president of one manufacturing firm, William R. Waldeisen, stated: “I’d go to a buyer’s office in New York and give him my card, and he’d look at it and say ‘Williamsport?’ Where the hell’s Williamsport?” With the increased number of schedules into and out of the city, Mr. Waldeisen said, “we see more buyers in a month now than we used to see in a year.”
Leo C. Williamson, the manager of public relations for the Lycoming Division of Avco Manufacturing, the city’s largest employer, stated that because of Allegheny, “I can leave here at 8:15 in the morning and be walking into a meeting in the Savoy Plaza in New York by 10 o’clock. I can leave my office at nine, fly to Pittsburgh to meet someone for lunch, get my business taken care of, and be back in my office by 3:55. We haven’t touched the surface of the market for air service.”
What the people of Williamsport were experiencing was the intended result of the CAB’s experiment with Local Service Airlines. Allegheny, and the other Locals, were expected to provide a vital link between America’s smaller communities—Main Street, USA—and the big cities where business could be transacted, shopping opportunities and cultural events enjoyed, and connections made to other airlines for transportation to distant destinations.
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AIRLINE OF THE EXECUTIVES
As early as 1953, Barnes was aware that the company needed some larger aircraft. To quote the annual report from that year: “In many respects [the] company has outgrown the DC-3. Many flights consistently operate at maximum capacity… it is not always possible to meet either passenger or express demands except through the operation of additional schedules.” Some of the other Local Service carriers must have wished they had that problem.
Barnes’s team acquired three 40-passenger Martin 202s from the assets of defunct California Central Airlines, and a fourth from Pioneer Air Lines. The Martins went into service beginning June 1, 1955. Allegheny christened the “new” aircraft Martin Executives, never using the “202” designation in publicity material. The public could make the assumption that the Martins were the more advanced, pressurized 404 model, which was similar in appearance. Barnes was confident the 202 could be operated without subsidy support from the government—which, he stated, the DC-3 never could. Allegheny eventually operated a total of 18 Martin 202s.
With the arrival of the Martin Executives, the company adopted a new slogan: “Airline of the Executives.”
1955 was also when Congress enacted legislation granting permanent certification to the Locals, which was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on May 19th. This was an extremely important victory for the 13 Local Service carriers. No longer would they hold “temporary” certificates, with the CAB reviewing their entire operation every few years to determine whether or not the individual carriers should be allowed to live a little longer. Financiers could invest with confidence and company employees could breathe a little easier knowing that the Local airlines were now a fixed part of America’s air transportation system.
In 1956, Allegheny’s flight crew complement included 114 pilots and 55 flight attendants, all men. In a marketing arrangement with Air France, 15 of that company’s most junior hostesses were “loaned” to Allegheny for six months to work aboard the Martins. For all of them it was their first assignment with Air France, which paid their salaries during the sales promotion project. The French female cabin attendants brought the desired favorable publicity to Allegheny.
The airline’s system was extended further west in 1956, when the CAB authorized Allegheny to serve Detroit from Erie, Pennsylvania, with flights funneling through Erie from points east. With the help of the CAB, Allegheny’s service had become as indispensable to the Mid-Atlantic Region as Mohawk’s had become to the people of New York State.
By the end of 1958, the company operated a fleet of 10 Martin 202s and 13 DC-3s, all 23 aircraft decked out in the company’s dark green livery. Most of the other Locals were still operating all-DC-3 fleets and just beginning to sign contracts for aircraft the size of Allegheny’s Martins. But Barnes was already looking at his next move, toward aircraft with even greater capacity—not to replace the Martins and DC-3’s but to augment them.
Consequently, on July 1, 1959, Allegheny put its first turbo-prop aircraft into service, on an experimental basis. Allegheny was the launch customer for Napier’s Eland-powered “jet-prop” conversion of the popular Convair 340 twin. Dubbed the Convair 540, a single example was leased from Napier and introduced on routes to Atlantic City and Cape May, New Jersey, from Pittsburgh and Washington. To celebrate Hawaii becoming the 50th state in the union that year, Allegheny’s management decided to paint the exterior of the aircraft in a festive livery and staff it with Hawaiian hostesses wearing “colorful island garb.” Dubbed Leilani Service, snacks were offered onboard from a “Hukilau” food tray. The company reported that “all previous sales records on these route segments were exceeded by a wide margin as a direct result of this colorful service.”
At the end of the summer season, the Convair 540 was deployed on an innovative new non-stop commuter run between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Called “Commuter Express,” it offered such advancements as walk-up no-reservation service, booklets of multiple commuter tickets at a reduced rate, and the ability for a passenger to pay the fare on board. The service quickly became popular and Allegheny competed favorably against the trunk carriers flying larger aircraft on the same route. The program was eventually expanded into other Allegheny markets. Eastern Air Lines would copy and refine the concept for the Northeast Corridor with its famous “Air Shuttle,” introduced in 1961.
In addition to experimenting with new services aboard non-stops from Pittsburgh to Atlantic City and Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Allegheny also rid its route map of unproductive stations. Even though the purpose of a Local airline was to bring air service to smaller cities, some communities simply did not produce enough boarding passengers and revenue to justify continued service. With the CAB’s permission, Allegheny terminated service at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania; Dover, Delaware; Easton/Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Cumberland, Maryland, on February 11, 1959.
After the initial Hawaiian Islands-themed livery had served its purpose on the single leased Convair 540, the company retained that aircraft’s red window-band and updated the airline’s “boomerang” logo on the jet-prop’s tail. But Allegheny management soon decided it was time to refresh the whole fleet and corporate image. They selected new colors of red and royal blue and a new paint scheme featuring a stylized arrow logo (the speed wedge) to replace the boomerang. It would be a new look for the new decade ahead.
Allegheny ordered five Convair 540s from Napier and also arranged for the purchase of 11 secondhand, unconverted, piston-engine Convair 440s, to be acquired over time. The 440s and 540s were all to be outfitted with 52 passenger seats.
On December 1, 1959, after more than 10 years of safe operations in a part of the country that contained some challenging terrain and the possibility of harsh weather, Allegheny suffered its first fatal accident. Martin 202 N174A—operating as flight 371 from Philadelphia to Cleveland, with four stops in Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, Williamsport, Bradford and Erie)—crashed while the pilots were executing a go-around after an aborted landing attempt at Williamsport in light snow with poor visibility. The three working crew members, a cockpit jumpseat rider, and 21 of the 22 passengers died in the accident.
The new decade dawned with hope and excitement, not only for Allegheny Airlines but for all of America. The shadow of the Cold War still hung over the country but 1960 brought a clean slate and all the possibilities that came with it. The company did not have to wait long to start expanding its horizons.
In December 1959, the CAB awarded Allegheny routes into southern New England, stretching to Boston and including the new stations of Providence, Hartford/Springfield, New London/ Groton, New Haven, Bridgeport, and Islip. Allegheny would be replacing American Airlines at some of these cities and on some of the area’s routes, which were more suited to being served by a Local airline than a trunk. These cities were brought online in stages during 1960. As Allegheny launched the first of the new routes into southern New England, on April 12th, it also introduced the Convair 440.
The new DuBois-Jefferson County Airport in Pennsylvania opened for business and welcomed Allegheny on June 1, 1960, ending the need for a 48-mile drive to Philipsburg in order to board one of the company’s flights.
During 1960, the first full year of Allegheny’s walk-up, no reservation “Commuter Express” service with on-board ticketing between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the airline captured about 44% of the market—and expected to carry more than 50% of air travelers between those two points the following year.
Also in 1960, the Civil Aeronautics Board settled subsidy claims with the airline stretching back to 1955. After carrying 679,000 revenue passengers during the year, Allegheny ended 1960 with a record net income of $426,000 (comparable to $3.4 million in 2015). It was, by far, the company’s best year to date.
At the end of 1960, Allegheny was operating a fleet of five 52-passenger Convair 540 prop-jets, eight 52-passenger Convair 440s, 12 40-passenger Martin 202s, and eight 24-passenger Douglas DC-3s.
Barnes and his team saw nothing but blue skies ahead, with the jet age bringing about tremendous change in the airline industry—change that would affect every carrier, trunk and Local.