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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Flying The Line

The original route structure, with only three planes was designed so that all three planes arrived in Orlando (MCO) at the same time.  For example, they would layover each night in the northern cities, Indianapolis, Louisville and Richmond.  Their departures in the morning were timed so the planes could make their intermediate stops in Nashville and Norfolk, then match up at MCO.  At this point, the big ant pile process, known as a bank, with passengers either remaining in Orlando or getting on the other planes to continue, took place at the terminal and then the planes flew to Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami.  After unloading and reloading, the planes were flown back to MCO, then to the northern cities and back for an afternoon bank.   From here they went south again, then back for an early evening bank, before flying to the overnights in the north country. 

There were several marketing thoughts behind this process.  First, we were flying to mid-size cities so as not to compete with the larger, more established airlines.  (After my Pacific Express experience, I thought this was a great idea.)  Secondly, we were bypassing the major hubs of Atlanta and Charlotte, offering non-stop service to Florida.  The fares were so low that we attracted people to drive to our northern cities from cities several hours away.  Then we kept all of our people together in our system to offer 3 more Florida destinations.

We were small, we had our own little niche and the big boys did not see us as a threat.  They left us alone to do our thing, because we were not trying to do what they were doing.  At Pacific Express, as the major airlines were coming back from their most recent recession, they were putting good airplanes against our junk, for the same low fares.  We were going to lose that fight.  Florida Express (Flex) was maintaining a much lower profile.

As we added airplanes, we added new cities.  Above is an example of another route structure.  It was changing all the time, as the marketing people tried to keep the airline profitable.  As pilots, we always liked going to new places.

Eventually, we began to buy BAC 1-11-400 series airplanes.  These were the version designed for American Airlines.  They had a maximum gross take off weight that was 10,000 lbs. greater than the -200 series and about 1000 lbs. more thrust per engine.  They carried more fuel and were capable of greater range.  

The company continued to fly to mid size cities and to bypass the big hubs, flying non-stop to Orlando.  Harrisburg, PA, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, MI and Cleveland are examples of the new cities at greater distances.  We avoided the northern hubs of other airlines, such as Pittsburgh and Chicago.

We went to more cities in Florida.  Ft. Meyers, Sarasoto and West Palm Beach were added.  We started flying to Nassau in the Bahamas.

New Orleans, Birmingham, Knoxville were our kind of cities.  I loved New Orleans, where we could get a cup of gumbo for lunch in the terminal or eat shrimp, oysters or crayfish for dinner on a layover.  We flew to the Cincinnati airport, which is actually across the Ohio River in Kentucky.  I won lots of bets with the flight attendants on that one.

For the most part, our flight attendants had never flown professionally before.  They were all very happy to be flying for Florida Express.  It was a very exciting new experience for them.  They were mostly young women from the Orlando area, but we did have some older women who had raised their families and were looking for an interesting job.  In my opinion, they were largely responsible for whatever success the airline achieved.  They were where the rubber met the road.  They and the agents were where the personal contact with our passengers took place.

These were tough jobs and required certain personal attributes that are not possessed by everyone.  They had to be able to deal with people who were often angry about something that was not within the control of the flight attendants.  

With my anecdotal observations, I noticed a cycle that the flight attendants went through as they progressed with their time at the company.  When they were first hired, they were very happy to be flying and saw it as a glamorous job.  As time passed, they encountered reality.  Passengers were mean to them.  Some of the pilots may have used and abused them.  The company overworked and under paid them.  Their attitudes usually took a nose dive.  If they could not climb back out of the hole they ended up in, they didn't last long.

If they could avoid that nose dive or climb back out of it, they would become very good flight attendants.  They just knew how to roll with the punches and survive.  Most of them thrived and were great friends and fellow employees.  I admired them and enjoyed flying with them.

Some of the flight attendants were dudes.  We had lots of the stereotypical gay flight attendants and a few straight dudes.  The straights would always try to assure that the pilots knew they were straight, often by coming in the cockpit during boarding and making complimentary comments about the physical attributes of some of our female passengers.

We usually had more planes than gates in Orlando at each bank, so we loaded people by having them walk across the ramp, instead of using jet bridges.  Several flights would be loaded in sequence through the same door.  This gave the straight dude FAs a chance to appraise our female passengers and let the pilots know their preferences.

Some of the pilots did not like flying with gay flight attendants. Being a happily married guy and a complete professional, I didn't mind flying with them.  I thought in some ways, they were more professional and did a better job than some of the women.  They were not looking for a rich passenger or pilot to marry them.  This was their job and they did it well.  They took care of their business in the back and I didn't have to deal with any of them coming to the cockpit crying, because some passenger had said something mean to them.  I respected that.

Early on, we actually had one young woman who was a part time prostitute and was making business arrangements with passengers to meet them in the layover cities.  She was fired when this became known.

Jumping ahead to current time, I am still in touch with many of these flight attendants, they are fantastic people and several of them are still working for other airlines today.  I can tell you that those who are, really love what they do.   


  1. I didn't realize they ran a hub operation in Orlando. About 2011, 2012 I had a meeting with the Orlando airport manager and he stated (with some satisfaction) that nobody changed planes in Orlando, it was all O&D traffic.

    That Orlando airport manager was a gent named Jim Sheppard, who had developed the 'wayport' concept. Brilliant guy with a great idea, that made system sense but not commercial sense for any one airline.

  2. We did that from January 1984 until Sept. 1989, but I don't want to give away to much of the story. I don't think there were any hub operations there before or after the one I was involved in.