Spotlight on: Hughes Airwest and Tom Bailey, Curator of 'Top Banana in the West' History
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
The history of Hughes Airwest is as fascinating as their enigmatic owner, Howard Hughes. For decades Tom Bailey, a Hughes Airwest alumnus, has painstakingly curated the company history.
In 1960, as a condition for financing arranged for TWA’s “jet airline financing program” by Metropolitan Life and the Equitable Assurance Society, the 78% of TWA shares owned by the Hughes Tool Company and Howard Hughes was placed in a voting trusteeship. By 1966, Hughes had tired of the protracted legal battle to regain control of the company and sold his stock, leaving him awash in over $500 million in cash, an amount that would be worth nearly $4 billion today.
If you know anything about Howard Hughes, you know he wasn’t going to be without an airline. In 1968, shortly after Pacific, Bonanza and West Coast Airlines merged to form Air West, he pounced. After some wrangling with the Air West board, they finally agreed to sell to the Hughes Tool Company in January 1969. The deal was completed in 1970 and Air West became Hughes Air West, re-branded a year later as Hughes Airwest. In 1973 the company opened their new international headquarters in San Mateo, California. For ten glorious years the distinctive yellow and blue livery graced the skies of the American West, Canada and Mexico accompanied by the company’s famous “Yes,” advertising and marketing campaign. Management embraced the airline’s bright yellow livery with the tagline “Top Banana in the West.” Hughes Airwest operated a variety of aircraft over the years, but by 1979 was an all-jet fleet of DC 9-10/30’s and B-727-200’s. Regrettably, with the death of Howard Hughes in April 1976, the future ownership of Hughes Airwest was uncertain. In June 1980, the Summa Corporation (Hughes’ vast holding company) and the Hughes estate agreed to sell the airline to Republic Airlines, which was absorbed by Northwest Orient (Northwest Airlines) in 1986. Northwest Airlines merged with Delta Air Lines in 2008.
Our brief synopsis above might lead the reader to believe that Hughes Airwest was a footnote in U.S. airline history, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Anyone doing even cursory research on the airline’s history is sure to come upon the Hughes Airwest website owned and managed by Tom Bailey. After spending just a few minutes on Tom’s site, hughesairwest.com, it will become abundantly clear that Hughes Airwest was a very special airline, operated by very special people. Nearly 40 years after the buyout by Republic Airlines, the Hughes Airwest community endures, thanks in no small part to Tom Bailey. One of the most interesting treasures Tom has curated is an extensive collection of Air West and Hughes Airwest Employee newsletters from 1968-1980, comprised of 125 issues. In what can only be described as a “labor of love” Tom painstakingly scanned each issue, which are available in PDF format individually or as a collection for purchase. Tom’s website is a virtual treasure trove of fascinating stories, photos, and memorabilia from both Hughes Airwest and predecessor airlines. It has also served as a place for Hughes Airwest employees to reconnect and reminisce about the exciting, high flying days before deregulation in 1978. Since 2010, reunions have been organized for former Hughes Airwest employees and according to the hughesairwest.com website, a 2020 reunion is planned, but the date hasn’t yet been announced. We reached out to Tom by e-mail with questions about his experience with Hughes Airwest and his website.
Q. In retrospect, there is a certain cache associated with working for a Howard Hughes-owned company. Did this give employees a certain sense of security and pride, or was the feeling altogether something different?
A. Because of the difficulties all of us experienced with the 3-way merger of Bonanza, Pacific, and West Coast that began on 7/1/1968, I think we all felt a great sigh of relief upon learning of the acquisition. We all knew of the potential the company had with our existing route structure and with two years of working together as one airline, the momentum was there.
Q. Could you tell us about your relationship with Hughes Airwest (RW), when you worked there and in what capacity/capacities?
A. I started my career with Pacific Air Lines in the summer of 1966 as a Station Agent in Lake Tahoe. I was there for a brief 2 months when an opportunity presented itself to join PC’s Marketing Department as a Sales Rep, located in the Bay Area. With the 3-way merger in 1968, I was promoted to District Sales Manager in Fresno, CA covering the Central Valley from Stockton to Bakersfield. In 1970 when service was greatly reduced in that market, specifically Fresno, the company moved me back to the Bay Area as District Sales Manager covering the East Bay.
Fast forward to 1975 when the C.A.B. [Civil Aeronautics Board - predecessor to the FAA] greatly relaxed the charter rules allowing tour operators and other entities to charter aircraft and resell the seats providing certain ground arrangements (hotels etc.) at the destination city were included. Las Vegas was the perfect destination for this market and RW was in a perfect position to participate with our brand-new Boeing 727-200’s. I was promoted to Manager of Charter Sales operating out of our corporate headquarters in San Mateo. We were completely successful in competing for this new business and quickly became the leading regional carrier in the charter market and were second to UAL among all US scheduled airlines. I held that position until May of 1979 when management made the decision that all aircraft would be needed to compete in the newly deregulated U.S. airline industry and our charter department was disbanded. I was offered and accepted a position as District Sales Manager in San Jose.
Q. In very short order, it seems that Hughes Airwest was able to develop a cohesive culture. Considering the airline consisted of three merged companies (each with their own culture), how was management able to bring the team together?
A. They didn’t and at first, it was a total living nightmare. Top level management positions were negotiated with an equal number being assigned to each of the 3 former carriers. This resulted in everyone wanting to do it their way. Operations took the biggest hit resulting in complete chaos and our on-time performance went completely south! I can remember planes landing at Fresno and the agents would have to open the door and ask the flight attendant where they were coming from and what their flight number was. We quickly earned the name of Air Worse which still haunts me to this day. It wasn’t until the Hughes takeover in the early 70’s that things started to change.
Q. Airline accidents are always extremely difficult but are often harder when they occur at small close-knit airlines like Hughes Airwest. You have posted a moving tribute to the team members lost on flight 706 on your website. Did you personally know the individuals lost? If so, would you like to share any memories?
A. The flight crew on 706 was from Seattle and they were all former WCA [West Coast Airlines] people, so I didn’t know any of them. I was also spared having to participate in the duties that my fellow Sales team members went through because my wife and I were on vacation in Mexico and they were unable to reach me. They performed duties like calling relatives with the sad news. Some were asked to provide transportation (we all had company cars) for relatives around the system. A few of the guys were taken to the crash site in the San Gabriel Mountains to assist the FAA in the search for aircraft parts and human remains.
I was contacted in 2012 by the Producer of an aviation documentary series called Air Crash Investigation that aired on the National Geographic Channel. They were looking for information on the history of Hughes Airwest as well as any information about the 5 crew members. They were looking to paint a picture of the people involved in the company as well as any period photos of the aircraft, cabins, and uniforms. I was able to provide them with a great deal of contact information of employees that had been intimately involved with the accident investigation. They also made use of many of the photos from the website for their excellent graphics. For some unknown reason, NatGeo named the episode “Speed Trap.” Anyone who watched the episode or knew anything about the accident, knew that speed had nothing to do with the tragedy that played out on that sad Sunday evening of June 6th in 1971.
Q. The relationship between airline management and unionized employees is often adversarial. There was a well-publicized strike by Hughes Airwest mechanics in the early 1970’s. What was the general relationship between Hughes Airwest and the unionized line employees?
A. That strike was actually in 1972, it was 4 months in length and ended in April. As with any strike, there were some “ruffled feathers” and bent egos but I don’t recall any long-term problems or issues. After we all got back to work, the memory of the strike faded quickly. Russ Stephenson, former CEO of Mohawk Airlines was hired as our new VP of Marketing in April, plans for our new corporate offices in San Mateo were announced in July and the end of the year brought about our first profitable year since the merger. In my humble opinion, 1972 was truly our turn around year and it was the first year of six straight years of profitability.
Q. When Howard Hughes died in April 1976, there must have been some concern over the future of the airline. Would you like to describe the general attitude of the Hughes Airwest rank-and-file at that time?
I don’t recall any wide spread concerns about our future due to his passing. We all were aware of the “recluse” lifestyle he was living at the time of his passing and his lack of involvement in the activities of his corporate empire. The Summa Board of Directors were no strangers to us, they often came to town and had meetings in our corporate palatial headquarters.
Q. How did Hughes Airwest employees react to the announcement that the company was being sold to Republic Airlines in 1979/1980?
A. That is a question I can’t answer as I resigned my DSM position in San Jose in September of 1979 and moved to Fresno where I went to work for my father-in-law. We had been told by management that Summa was planning to sell Hughes Airwest but at the time I had to decide, no offers had been made. The thought of having to go through another merger sent chills down my spine. Who would buy us? Would I still have a job? Would we have to move? I had two small children and a wife to think of at that juncture of my life and the opportunity of moving back to a city that I loved and to work in a very successful residential window manufacturing business owned by my wife’s family made all the sense in the world.
Q. When did you launch the hughesairwest.com website? If you could guess, how many hours have you spent managing the site and curating all the wonderful content, especially the Hughes Airwest Employee Newsletter collection? A. I started hughesairwest.com in the fall of 2001. I had been working for an internet service provider (ISP) for a couple of years, so I was quite familiar with “The Net.” I got the idea one day when I ran across a couple of “Fallen Flag” (airlines no longer in business) websites belonging to Eastern and Braniff. I found a software program that allowed a novice like me to design a website from templates. Because I was working for an ISP, I had everything else that I needed in the way of startup and so getting it online was easy so the site was off and running within a couple of weeks. I have no idea of the hours I have put it but I’m sure it is in the thousands. It truly has been a “labor of love” for me. When I had the “Where Are They Now” pages going, it was very time consuming. At one time there were over a thousand former employees listed alphabetically with mini-bios, photos, and emails for each. Spammers out there were grabbing email addresses of those pages like crazy. It finally became unmanageable, so I decided to take that portion down.
Q. Your website makes it abundantly clear that former Hughes Airwest Employees look on their experience with great fondness. What was so special about Hughes Airwest?
A. I have always felt there were two factors involved. 1) The basic core group of RW 2000+ employees who made up the original Air West formed in 1968 were from 3 really good airlines and we went through pure hell for the first three years. Those days bound us together and we all worked hard to turn the corner as a team. 2) In addition to being provided with an infusion of new and much needed capital when HH purchased us in 1970, we found ourselves under new leadership in the form of a man by the name of Irv Tague who became our new CEO. Russ Stephenson who became our 2nd CEO when Irv left to start Midway Airlines in Chicago, said it best in my opinion in a “Tribute to Irv” that he wrote for the “In Memory” page of the website: “In my opinion, Irv Tague deserves the credit for the development of Hughes Airwest to be a major, successful regional airline. He had a good staff to assist him. In addition, seeing the beginning of a turnaround, which continued, brought new hope to employees who began to improve the operation and service quality with new pride and energy.”
Q. It is very sad reading the ever-growing “In Memory” section of your website, which makes reunions so important. Will you let us know when your next reunion date is set? We will be happy to post a link to your re-union page at that time.
A. By all means! Reunions have played a huge part in keeping us all together. It is sad to say that they are becoming fewer and farther between as the list of names on the “In Memory” page of the website sadly continues to grow.
Q. What do you want people who have never heard of Hughes Airwest know? You have dedicated many hours to the memory of Hughes Airwest. What do you hope the legacy of Hughes Airwest will be, along with the legacy of the thousands of hours you have dedicated to the airline and your former colleagues?
A. I hope people will remember us as an airline that cared about people. Not only our fellow employees but our beloved passengers as well. Our time on this planet as an airline ended way too soon.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for the opportunity to tell the story of the “Top Banana.”
In addition to the Hughes Airwest website, hughesairwest.com, Tom also manages a Hughes Airwest group on Facebook with over 600 members. We’d like to thank Tom for his generosity in making this article possible and for preserving the history of Hughes Airwest for the American People, and aviation enthusiasts worldwide. We wish Tom and his Hughes Airwest colleagues many happy reunions for years to come.