Al Feldman was part of a small group of high-level executives and professionals who enjoyed adventurous two-week vacations with their families out west each summer, often at a remote and exclusive fishing camp in Idaho. The vacationers were Feldman’s dearest friends. One was Dick Ferris, the president of United, who had grown close to Feldman as they battled jointly in favor of airline deregulation. Another was Travis Reed, an aircraft broker and deal maker who had served as undersecretary of commerce in the Ford administration. Both Feldman, newly widowed, and Reed, then unmarried, were living in Los Angeles; they began spending many of their evenings together.
Over dinner, night after night, Feldman told Travis Reed how much he disliked Lorenzo and his tactics and how desperately he wanted to save Continental. ‘‘He was emotionally 100 percent immersed in it,’’ Reed would recall years later. ‘‘It was a battle to the death.’’ As the battle dragged on, Reed watched Feldman go from his usual two drinks or so to five ‘‘big drinks,’’ as Reed would later describe them. Feldman became obsessed with fending off Lorenzo. But strangely, in the period when the employee takeover received its devastating setbacks in Sacramento and Washington, Reed observed a conspicuous change in Feldman’s attitude. His intensity had diminished. His anxiety had melted away away.
Then President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. Four days later, a Sunday, while everyone else in the airline industry scrambled over their flight cutbacks, more bad news arrived at Continental headquarters. The nine banks that had agreed to finance the employee takeover were withdrawing their commitment. The airline industry, the banks said, was in too much turmoil.
A group of employee leaders met with Feldman in his office. They were planning a trip to Sacramento - one last-ditch effort to lobby for reversal of the fatal ruling by the securities commission a few weeks earlier. Feldman told the takeover leaders not to bother; all hope was lost. The employees decided to go anyway.
Feldman reviewed a press release announcing the collapse of the financing. He then left his office, only to return later that evening carrying a package. Shortly before 6 P.M. a security guard stepped into Feldman’s office, asking how long he planned to work. ‘‘A few hours,’’ Feldman answered.
Phil Bakes decided that if the Continental employees were going to drag him back to Sacramento for one more round, then Frank Lorenzo could show up this time. Although Lorenzo had joined in the lobbying in Washington, he had resisted participating in the nastier and much lengthier legislative battle in California. Bakes felt strongly that Lorenzo needed to appear at a press conference in the California capital. Continental was headquartered in Los Angeles, after all. Lorenzo’s name had achieved too much prominence for him to miss out on this, the last political skirmish in the long battle to vanquish the employee takeover. Lorenzo flew into Sacramento late on the same Sunday that the emplovees financing had fallen through.
The next morning Bakes arrived first for breakfast and sat down to await Lorenzo. A group of the Continental pilots, making the trip from Los Angeles over the discouragement of Al Feldman, were having a breakfast meeting in the same hotel. One of’ the pilot leaders approached Bakes with a look of devastation on his face.
“I’ve just gotten word," he told Bakes earnestly, ‘‘Al Feldman has killed himself.” Bakes stood in disbelief.
The other members of the Continental group were filing in from their conference room. Another one of the pilot leaders saw Bakes. He thrust his finger in the air.
You killed him!” the pilot cried. “You killed him!”
Bakes was still in a state of shock when Lorenzo arrived for breakfast a moment later.
Frank,’’ Bakes said. “Al Feldman’s dead. He killed himself.”
Bakes watched the color vanish from Lorenzo’s face. Lorenzo, it suddenly appeared, was losing his breath. He had to sit down. Then “Frank was on the next plane out of Sacramento,” Bakes would later say.
Alvin Lindbergh Feldman had shot himself with a Smith & Wesson . 38 special purchased two weeks earlier, on the same night that his friend Travis Reed had noticed an easing of his countenance. Feldman had not been able to pick up the gun until California’s 14 day waiting period had lapsed. According to the coroner’s report, Feldman had been ‘despondent since the death of’ his wife” and “concerned over attempts by Texas International to take over Continental.’’
Al Feldman was buried near San Diego, with the members of his summer fishing group serving among his pallbearers. As they carried the remains of their friend, Travis Reed heard an anguished cry behind him. He turned to see Dick Ferris of’ United Airlines striking the top of the casket with a fist, tears streaming down his cheeks. ‘‘Damn you, Al!’’ Ferris cried. ‘‘Why did you have to do this?’’
In all the attention that Feldman's death received, few were aware that the former head of Mohawk Airlines had likewise taken his own life nearly a decade earlier, also in the midst of a takeover encounter with Francisco Lorenzo.
-HARD LANDING: The Epic Contest For Power And Profits That Plunged The Airlines Into Chaos by Thomas Petzinger. Jr. This is another good book about airline deregulation that gives a different perspective from RAPID DESCENT. Read both of them for a more balanced look at the period. It's available at the online bookstore Amazon.com.
(Ferris was forced out of UA in June 1987 after 12 years as UA president. Robert Peach was the MO head mentioned above. He killed himself with a shotgun after the AL merger was announced in 1971.)