"Harding Lawrence is so smooth he's a human ball bearing," is the way a former Civil Aeronautics Board official once described the chairman and chief executive officer of Braniff International.
What else can you say about a man who can convince you that he saves money by flying to Europe on the Concorde-notjust because he values his time at a certain hourly rate but out-of-pocket expenses?
After all, he explains with a sparkle in his eye, he wants to work a full day in New York before he leaves for his place on the French Riviera. But if he takes a regularly scheduled subsonic plane, he arrives in Paris too late to catch the last plane to Nice before the airport curfew shuts it down. That means spending the night with the wife and sometimes the kids in a Paris hotel, and eating dinner at a Paris restaurant. You know how expensive that is.
And then, you notice he has kind of broad shoulders, he says. He can't squeeze into one of those small French taxis, so he has to rent a limousine. You can see how things add up.
But if you take the Concorde, even at $1,880 roundtrip, you get to Paris in time to catch the plane to Nice and save all the money. It's all so logical. And it's the kind of logic Lawrence has used in building an airline system that now stretches coast-to-coast and border-to-border across the United States, over to Europe, down to South America and soon-if Lawrence has his way and he usually seems to-to the Orient.
Lawrence's smooth-talking is almost legendary and he knows it, even relishes it. At ceremonies in January at Dulles International Airport when Braniff became the first U.S. airline to fly the Concorde between Dulles and Dallas, Lawrence joked that during the flight from Paris, he noticed his Air France colleague was drinking wine. Lawrence refrained and was able, during the flight's course, to buy Air France's fleet of five Concordes and lease them back at an arrangement attractive to Braniff. There were knowing chuckles among listeners.
During hearings on airline deregulation, Lawrence told the Senate Commerce Committee that small airlines-like his, perhaps? needed some protection to keep from being gobbled up by the giants and to allow them to get the financing they had to have over the next few years to buy the new, more efficient, quieter airplanes they would be needing. Already, airlines were having trouble because of the uncertainly, he said.
Wait a minute, Commerce Chairman Howard W. Cannon (D-New.) said, waving a newspaper article. I see here you just got 20 banks to give you revolving credit to buy more than $70 million in planes, Cannon said. How were you able to get that? he asked. "Well, I guess I am just a fast talker," Lawrence said amid laughter.
Talking fast is only half of it though; he acts fast too. Not only does Braniff not need protection, those "giants" better watch out. Lawrence intends to "challenge them at every turn," as he puts it. He's already invading their territories. Almost overnight, Lawrence used provisions of the Airline Deregulation Act and opportunities presented by the Carter administration's pro-competition international aviation policy to expand Braniff's route system by a third.
Compare Braniff's 1977 to 1978 statistics, keeping in mind that the company's annual report a year ago predicted "conservative" growth in 1978. At the end of the year, Braniff had a fleet of 103 jets, up from 92; operated 665 flights daily, compared with 560 a day; was carrying passengers at the rate of 12 million a year (compared with 10 million) over 60,000 route miles (compared with 35,000) to 74 cities (compared with 52) in 12 nations. Employment grew from 11,500 to 13,400.
Braniff's capacity-available seats per mile-grew 21 percent while passenger traffic increased 28 percent. Profits increased 23 percent to $45.3 million.
Taking advantage of one provision of the new airline legislation that allows an airline to pick up the dormant or unused routes of another, Braniff on a single day in December inaugurated service to 16 new cities and 32 new markets. In January, an additional 17 new segments, including such routes as Dallas-Los Angeles and Miami-Atlanta, were begun. This was on top of new routes begun between Dallas and London, between the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii (a route Pan American World Airways wanted to drop) and to various South American points.
Right now, Braniff doesn't plan to start service to any additional new cities within the United States this year but there are applications on file with the Civil Aeronautics Board to link some of the cities with new route segments, and there are big international plans. On June 1, Braniff starts nonstop-which Pan Am pulled out of-to Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and Frankfurt, and there are all kinds of dotted lines representing hoped-for routes to the Far East.
Talk to most anyone in the airline industry or out who has run into Lawrence and they use words like "aggressive," "shrewd," "smart," and "smooth" to describe him. Only now do some in the industry say that Lawrence's expansion plans for Braniff may be a little too ambitious.
"Word's gotten to me that over at Pan Am they're saying, 'look, old Harding is going to fall out of the tree, hmm, bleed through the eyes, bleed at the bottom line...'" Lawrence said in an interview here in Braniff's new $75 million world headquarters complex. But he predicts success.
"...There's not madness in what we're doing," he says. "It's very calculated, very thought-out. Admittedly, it's ambitious, but I think we will make it successful."
All the cities added to the Braniff system so quickly were cities Braniff had applications pending to serve, Lawrence points out, and they all feed into a carefully laid out network.
For instance, one of the cities Braniff added to its system was Birmingham, Ala. Braniff picked up four nonstop routes: Birmingham to Houston, Memphis, New Orleans and New York City. Looking at the rest of the cities Braniff serves, Lawrence says, by adding the one-stop possibilities, Braniff can increase its routes by another 12.
If Dallas is added nonstop to Birmingham-an application is on file with the Civil Aeronautics Board-another 16 routes are possible so that 33 on-line routes are possible out of Birmingham, Lawrence says. With each point added, passengers are picked up and fed into the larger Braniff system, making the additional points worthwhile. Lawrence and Braniff president Russell Thayer explain that they see a possible 3,400 potential on-line market combinations from the cities current ly served.
The value of through traffic can't be underestimated, Lawrence says. When Braniff started service from Albany to New York, they carried an average of just 31 passengers between the two cities (it is more today) but enough people even the first week stayed on Braniff to other cities for the equivalent of 190 passengers between the two cities.
"Now if somebody told you you could carry on a 130-passenger plane 190 passengers, you'd do it, wouldn't your? Well, obviously, we did and we are and there it is.
"We built Braniff on this over the last 14 years," the 58-year-old Lawrence says. "This is how we operate; Feed-that's my concept."
Company officials call their plan the "A-B-Cs." They assemble the traffic, balance it between international and domestic, and connect it through their various hubs. The new routes to Europe will allow Braniff to route passengers to and from South America to Europe with a stop in the U.S. at one of Braniff's two major gateways, Boston and Dallas-Fort Worth, either for business or just to break up the trip. Passengers from Latin America will flow through Braniff gateways bound for the Orient under the same reasoning if Braniff wins new routes there, they say.
To encourage Europeans to travel throughout the U.S., Braniff has begun selling abroad an "airpass" allowing unlimited travel throughout its system for a month for $349.
Lawrence is particularly pleased that Braniff has been able to make a success of routes that others have dropped. "I must confess that I am enjoying taking up where others left off," he says. When Pan American wanted out of its route between the Pacific Northwest and Honolulu, Braniff was there. "They thought old Harding was going to sit down at the piano and not know how to play," he says with a wink and in a voice somehow gravelly and mellifluous at the same time. "But that route's a howling success."
Braniff's nonstop Dallas-London route, which it won from President Carter much to Pan Am's distress and charge of politics, was profitable in two months' time, much sooner than Lawrence expected. He concedes that sales weren't hurt when a U.S.-U.K. "donneybrook" put U.S. efforts to get Braniff's proposed low fares approved by the British on the front page of their newspapers every day for weeks.
"I'm trying to get one going to the other points in Europe, but they're all falling into line," he jokes.
The Concorde, planes painted by the late Alexander Calder, leather seats in first class-they are all part of an image of luxury that Braniff has cultivated, but Lawrence contends they all make sense because the passengers and employes are happy and they were also wise business moves, he says.
"Quality doesn't have to be expensive; it can even be less expensive," Lawrence contends. Leather seats, placed in first-class cabins to appeal to business travelers, who represented 70 percent of Braniff's traffic at one time-less now-turn out to be less costly than fabric now that Braniff has developed a stitching process to eliminating stretching.
Now, Lawrence has plans to put leather in place of fabric on all seats in Braniff planes in the future. "The initial cost will be more expensive, but the upkeep over the life of the seat will be less; the total cost to Braniff will be less," he says.'
Although there was a flap at the CABS when Braniff wanted to include the fees paid Calder to paint two planes in the rate-base, Braniff has made a lot of money on the deal. With the planes came about 15 painted plane models and 50 paintings which adorn the offices here and which have appreciated mightily in value.They could be sold for tremendous gain or donated to charitable organizations with Braniff taking the appropriate tax write-off. Meanwhile, Braniff has one of the best Calder collections in the United States.
Even the Concorde-which Braniff leases at $2,000 an hour-may make some money, albeit a small amount, this year for Braniff, Lawrence thinks. Although it is not breaking even yet, it is near there and, as a symbol of some kind of success, Braniff had to "bump" its first passenger off a Concorde last week from Dallas because of oversales.
"The proof's always in the results," Lawrence says. "Either you do or you don't." The smart money says that Braniff will. CAPTION: Picture 1, Harding Larence sits in his new office, the smallest in the new headquarters, he says. "I didn't want anyone to complain. AP; Picture 2, Lawrence stands on balcony outside his office overlooking 100-room hotel for employe use during training. The Braniff on-airport complex includes office, training and data processing centers and recreational facilities for 7,000 employes in the D-FW area, including 50 acres of park land and a lake. AP