Mohawk Airlines: ‘Slow hawk’ better than ‘no hawk’

By Bob Schulman


Reruns of the popular TV series Mad Men, set to start June 12, may ring a bell with veteran flyers, especially those living in the Northeast U.S. That’s because one of the top accounts of the series’ fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was Mohawk Airlines – and there really was an airline with that name at the time of the series’ plot in the mid-60s.

The real Mohawk was based in Utica in Upstate New York, and it ran a fleet of 69-passenger British-built jets. It served some three dozen cities on routes mostly linking small communities across New England to airports around New York City at JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, White Plains and Islip.

The airline was perhaps best known for rarely flying on time, mainly due to a shortage of air traffic controllers in New York’s airport towers. Flying into JFK, for example, passengers often found themselves circling nearby Lake Rokonkoma four or five times in the Deer Park Holding Pattern before controllers could clear their plane for landing.

The airline was dubbed “Slow Hawk” by its passengers – a tag Mohawk countered with, “That's better than No Hawk.”

It was, because if you wanted to fly from regional cities like Utica, Plattsburgh, Watertown, Massena, Ogdensburg, Ithaca, Elmira and Jamestown, you didn't have a choice of carriers. Mohawk was it!

Coincidentally, Mohawk really did hire a new ad agency before an ongoing flow of red ink led to its takeover by Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Airlines in 1972. The agency – a heavy hitter from Madison Avenue full of guys in grey flannel suits – came up with all kinds of what the airline’s CEO described as “meshugganah” (crazy) ad schemes.

One, called Mohawk’s “Board of Perfectors,” encouraged passengers to report  anything that went wrong on a Mohawk flight. Complainers who called in became “perfectors” of the airline and were rewarded with a chit worth a dollar in cash or a free drink on their next flight.

Mohawk’s switchboard operators were soon deluged by passengers calling in horror tales of late flights, lost luggage, bungled reservations and the like. But no one had told the operators about the program, much less what department to pass these calls to and what the process was to claim a reward.

So, besieged by calls and jammed up phone lines, mostly by passengers who didn’t get to their destination on time (or at all), the operators became unhappy campers. So did Mohawk’s dozens of other staffers, who couldn’t call out and at the same time couldn’t be reached by phone.

The men from Madison Avenue defended the promotion this way: “We know lots of flights are late,” said the ad agency, “but that’s not Mohawk’s fault... it’s the FAA’s fault because they haven’t hired enough air traffic controllers... the passengers shouldn’t be complaining to Mohawk.”

When he fired the agency, the CEO asked them,“Do you really think an irate passenger cares whose fault the delay was... especially when they’been offered a reward for telling us how awful it was to fly on Mohawk?”

Footnote: After the Allegheny takeover in 1972 the combined airline changed its name to USAir in 1979 and a few years later to US Airways. It took Piedmont Airlines under its wings in 1985, merged with America West in 2005 and went on to acquire American Airlines in 2015. It now flies under American’s name and colors.

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