Mohawk and the Mad Men: Airline nostalgia for Boomers

Story and photo by Bob Schulman

The capture of the Mohawk Airlines' ad account by AMCTV's Mad Men might have rung a bell with Baby Boomers, especially those living in the Northeast U.S. Local Boomers might recall how the real Mohawk (based in the little town of Utica in Upstate New York) ran a fleet of 69-passenger jets and some prop planes on routes from small communities across New England to hub terminals around New York City and Washington, D.C.

When the account went to the fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ad agency in the mid-60s, Mohawk's operations were being clobbered by air traffic congestion in its two hub areas. Flying into the Big Apple, for example, passengers often found themselves circling nearby Lake Rokonkoma four or five times in the Deer Park Holding Pattern before the plane was cleared for landing. So Mohawk rarely showed up on time.

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

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

Boomers from other small towns elsewhere in the country may recall similar one-airline situations at the time. In the Midwest, for instance, Ozark Airlines flew you to St. Louis, where you connected to flights on larger airlines like American and United. And you flew on Southern Airways to Atlanta to hop on the likes of Delta and Eastern.

Similarly, six other regional carriers fed traffic to the big airlines at other connecting terminals: Hughes Airwest, mainly at San Francisco; Allegheny, at hubs in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; Frontier (no relation to the present Frontier), at Denver; North Central, at Minneapolis; Texas International, at Houston; and Piedmont, at Winston-Salem, N.C.

The nine regional airlines shared a common source of financial backing: Uncle Sam, who paid out subsidies for service to small communities unable to generate enough traffic to make the routes pay for themselves.

Uncle Sam also ruled the roosts of the big carriers. The feds doled out lucrative mainstream routes to the 10 so-called “trunk” airlines of the times, then told them how much they could charge for tickets, much like a regulated utility.

The system fell apart in 1978 when the Airline Deregulation Act became the law of the land. Unshackled from Uncle Sam, big and small airlines alike could fly just about anywhere they wanted to and for whatever they wanted to charge.

At that point, as one airline exec put it, “Even well-run airlines found themselves at the mercy of their weakest, cheapest or dumbest competitor...to stay in the game, they simply had to match the other guy's prices, whether they made money or not.”

Only two of the nine regional airlines managed to stay afloat in the choppy waters of deregulation. Among the others, Southern and North Central teamed up to form Republic Airlines (no relation to today's Republic), then added Hughes Airwest to the mix. That deal ended when Republic was sold to Northwest, one of the giant airlines of the day.

Ozark was gobbled up by TWA, which in turn was folded into American. Frontier became a unit of a post-deregulation carrier called PeopleExpress, which in turn became a unit of Continental.

 Of the two survivors, Allegheny acquired Piedmont, after which it changed its name to USAir. Later, USAir bought out America West, another post-deregulation startup, to become today's US Airways (now hoping to do a deal with American).

 The other surviving entity was Texas International, the winner of a fierce battle for control of Continental. After that, “TI” as it was called adopted the name of the larger airline, which a few years ago merged with United to become United Continental Holdings, operator of United.

 And what about Mohawk? Zapped by the triple whammy of a long, bitter strike, a recession and the shutdowns of General Electric plants in the Northeast – Mohawk's main source of corporate traffic – the airline never made it to the deregulation starting line. It was sold to Allegheny in 1972.

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