The curtain is about to go up.
Props and costumes have been ordered and are coming in; scenery is being built. Preparations appear to be a little late, at least so far as past productions are concerned, but the director appears confident that everything will be in place by the opening next Sunday.
The cast has been assembled and is in rehearsal. The backstage crew is working.
This is an all-new production, complete with an "angel" standing in the wings with big bucks. Although there is a new and relatively young cast, staging is by old pros with critical acclaims from other successful productions in the provinces. They are ready to hit the big town.
This is no ordinary New York show, however.The curtain we're talking about here is about to go up on New York Air, a classy new show promising reserved seats on a high-frequency Washington-New York run without "scalper's prices."
New York Air plans to operate 10 roundtrip flights a day between Washington and New York during the week, eight on the weekends. It will charge $49 each way on eight of its weekday flights, and $29 each way for a lunch hour and night flight. All seats on the weekend flights will cost $29.
A wholly owned subsidiary of Texas Air Corp., New York Air is drawing on the strengths of Manhattan and its prized attraction, the theater, for inspiration and an operating theme.
Prospective flight attendants "auditioned" for jobs on stage at the Town Hall Theatre in Manhattan. Flights are being considered performances; although advance bookings look good, the employes know a long run depends on each performance. Stock will be awarded for winning individual and corporate performances.
On Thursday, when New York Air pins wings on its new employes, the widow of Fiorello LaGuardia, former mayor of New York, will christen New York Air's first plane. It will be called "Little Flower," LaGuardia's nickname.
There hasn't been a show like this in the airline industry since Lamar Must put stewardesses of his fledgling Southwest Airlines in hot pants to pass out free bottles of liquor almost a decade ago.
It may sound show biz but behind this production is hard work, down-to-earth economics. The "angel" and executive produce of New York Air is Frank Lorenzo, who turned an almost bankrupt airline into the successful Texas International Airlines, instituted the popular and money-making discount "peanuts" fares. A visit to New York Air's makeshift headquarters here in American Airlines' old Hangar 5 at LaGuardia Airport shows just how much behind-the-scenes work is necessary. It's Tuesday. The scene is the weekly staff meeting where key officials get together to run through their progress and problems. There is some joking before the meeting starts about a daily recitation, "We will fly, we will fly, we will fly." The nine officers gathered here are working against the clock -- and enjoying every minute of it -- to get the airline off the ground and flying a week from today. m
Things seem to be falling into place; there is a feeling that they'll get what needs to be done in the time they have. "When will we have that equipment?" Joe Stevens, vice president-customer services, is asked at one point. "This week" is the reply. "Listen, there's a 90-day lead time and I ordered it last week," Stevens says amid laughter.
Humor abounds. Neal Meehan, NYA president and general manager, jokes about all the perks -- like getting to have lunch each day -- at LaGuardia's snack bar.
At Tuesday's meeting, Bill Bottoms, vice president-technical services, is the first to report. The first airplance came in over the weekend. The second plane will come in Dec. 8 or Dec. 9.
United Airlines will do the gound-handling for NYA at LaGuardia, and Northwest Airlines is set for Washington National. "The major problem for us right now is certification," he says. The Civil Aeronautics Board, the agency with the authority to give airlines their route and overall fitness certificates, is expected to give its final nod to New York Air on Dec. 11, three days before scheduled service is to start. The Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of deciding whether the airline meets federal safety fitness standards.
Stevens is next. He had a good day yesterday and "I needed it." Reservations training is proceeding and will be complete Friday. Training on the cash registers the airline plans to use for their simplified ticketing started yesterday. "When will I see some physical work on ticket counters?" Meehan asks.
Work is also proceeding at National; New York Air will have "a nice set up" there, Stevens says: ticket counter space between Northwest and Trans World Airlines, a separate departure and arrival TV monitor, their own gate -- number 1 -- down the same concourse.
Pilot training continues this week, Steve Kolski, vice president of flying operations, tells the group, adding that the airline's call sign -- used by pilots, ground control and the FAA -- will be apple. "The FAA is scrutinizing our operations more closely than usual," he says.
The meeting continues; each gives a report, is asked questions, contributes ideas to others. There are innumerable things to do -- most of them listed on project sheets with tasks to be checked off as they are completed by the responsible officer.
Meanwhile, upstairs on the top floor of the old hangar, a large, sunny room is in the process of becoming a reservations center. In a makeshift classroom, new reservationists are learning how to operate visual display computer terminals. Nearby, six people are sitting around a table with phones taking reservations using the old-fashioned manual system; every booking is recorded on a three-by-five card.
Four weeks ago, there was just one peson here answering one phone, Margo Bell, director of reservations services, says. The call volume has been higher than anticipated but today, with 4,000 reservations already taken, they will be cutting over from the manual to a fully automated system, she says, displaying crossed fingers.
During the late afternoon, the first reservation is entered into the system:
three roundtrips. Steve Szar takes the call with half-a-dozen others excitedly looking over his shoulder, exclaiming, clapping, offering suggestions. "They know the flight number," one says enthusiastically. "They have a schedule!"
The eighth person on the New York Air payroll, on Oct. 1, Bell didn't hesitate a minute to leave a post at Texas International to join NYA. "It was the most exciting opportunity I've ever had in the airline business," she says. "To start up a new airline is an airline person's dream."
It was the same for Louise Gilliam, director of inflight services. A former American Airlines flight attendant lured to New York from Braniff Airways where she was manager of inflight.
"Although we have a lot of industry knowledge, it is very different from working in the structured environment of an established carrier," she says.
For one thing, "we are cross-utilizing our people, something that has never been done in the industry before," she says. "All of our people are customer service representatives with a primary responsibility as a flight attendant, reservationist or gound rep (ticket counter employe)," she explains.However, each of them will be trained in all three areas of responsibility and be given the opportunity to work in each one, she says.
Gilliam and Bell conducted the employee "auditions," winnowing down from 1,500 interviewed to the 57 hired. Their median age is 24 with three years of college.One has a Ph.D. in economics; another has a master's degree in Italian literature. About a third are men.
Ken Carlson, senior vice president of marketing, says the customer service representatives will also be the airline's public relations officers. "They're my sales force," he says. Early afternoon, Carlson goes to New York's JFK International Airport where the first newly delivered plane is being worked on. "That's my billboard," he glows when he sees the eye-catching DC9 airplane. It's top half is bright red, polished metal on the belly, with black and silver lettering and logo. A founder of Midway Airlines, New York Air is the second airline he is helping create.
Chuck Bare, director of flying operations, the airline's chief pilot, is getting ready to take two of the 16 NYA pilots out for some touch-and-go flying on the runway at Atlantic City's Airport: Simulated engine failures will be featured. The current on-plan flying has followed 40 hours of company indoctrination, 12 eight-hour days of classroom review of the aircraft and between 12 and 28 hours of simulator flying.
In the next act are the so-called proving runs -- a kind of dress rehearsal without the costumes -- scheduled for four days from Dec. 6 through Dec. 9. "We will fly regularly scheduled service without passengers for approximately 32 hours -- four roundtrips a day," Bare says, "and the FAA will be all over us. They'll check everything that's checkable."
That's confirmed by Raymon Castro, an FAA inspector from the New York office who is on board the plane. So far, Castro has seen nothing to indicate they won't pass the FAA's safety tests. "Most of the people they have are very experienced," he says. "That's why it's going so smoothly."
Not quite finished with this group of pilots, Bare is already planning to start training a new class of 16 in early January. Assuming a successful opening next Sunday, the backers of this initial production are already planning the next show -- New York to Boston. It's set to open Feb. 15.