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TWA Chief C.E. ‘Ed’ Meyer Battled Unions, Carl Icahn
Former accountant won airline’s top job after the industry lost its glamour
Trans World Airlines had a glamorous past. Once owned by Howard Hughes, the airline was known for whisking movie stars across the U.S. and over the Atlantic.
By the time C.E. “Ed” Meyer became chief executive in 1976, the fun was over. Gyrating oil prices made jet-fuel costs anyone’s guess. Airline hijackings terrified fliers. Deregulation of fares in 1978 spurred vicious competition, and airline executives were at war with unions.
“If we major airlines don’t cut our costs,” he said in 1981, “we’re dead.” The airline had been unprofitable since 1979. Mr. Meyer, a former accountant with a low-key style, was seeing glimmers of improvement by 1984. The respite was brief.
Carl Icahn, known then as a corporate raider and later as an activist investor, bought a stake in TWA and in May 1985 began pushing for bigger cost savings and asset sales. In congressional testimony, Mr. Meyer called Mr. Icahn “one of the greediest men on earth.” Mr. Icahn replied that Mr. Meyer was “putting out a lot of bull.”
In the midst of their squabble, terrorists in June 1985 hijacked a TWA jetliner bound to Rome from Athens with 153 people on board. One passenger was shot to death and dumped on the tarmac; some were held hostage for more than two weeks. Mr. Meyer and his aides were locked in crisis mode around the clock.
Mr. Icahn gained control of TWA later that year, and Mr. Meyer departed, but the airline continued to flounder. It spent much of the 1990s in bankruptcy court before being acquired by American Airlines in 2001.
Mr. Meyer died Nov. 4 at a hospital in Norwalk, Conn., of complications from a fall during his daily walk. He was 89.
In a court deposition, Mr. Icahn described a confrontation with Mr. Meyer in a hotel bar in May 1985: “[Mr. Meyer] said, ‘All you want is a fast buck. That’s all you have ever done in any of these [corporate raids], go for a fast buck.’ I said, ‘If we are psychoanalyzing each other, why don’t you admit…what you really care about is your job, and you are afraid I am going to take it away from you.’ ” Then, Mr. Icahn said, “we just sort of looked at each other.”
In general, Mr. Meyer was known for a quiet, unassuming style. In 1979, when TWA carried Pope John Paul II and his entourage on a tour of the U.S., Mr. Meyer was on board for one of those flights. He took a middle seat at the back of the plane.
Looking back, Mr. Meyer told the Kansas City Star in 1995 that TWA had been hobbled by its lack of a strong domestic route network to complement its lucrative overseas routes. To save the airline, he said, “we tried everything but standing on our head.”
Carl Edwin Meyer Jr. was born Aug. 6, 1928, in New York City and grew up in the Great Neck area of Long Island. His father was a buyer for a department-store chain. The younger Mr. Meyer, an Eagle Scout who grew up swimming at Jones Beach and sailing on Great South Bay, studied history at Amherst College, where he graduated in 1950. He served in the Army Reserve and joined the accounting firm of Harris, Kerr, Forster & Co. In 1957, he earned an M.B.A. degree from New York University.
He joined Eastern Airlines as an assistant treasurer in 1965 and hopped to TWA three years later.
At TWA, he struggled with pilots and flight attendants over pay, but his toughest battles were with the International Association of Machinists, representing the airline’s mechanics. He prodded them to accept more flexible work rules that would mean fewer jobs but promised to reduce employment only through attrition. Union members remained worried about job losses and voted to strike in December 1982.
Worried that the strike would cause huge losses, Mr. Meyer capitulated to the union’s demands, granting pay raises and withdrawing efficiency-related changes in work rules. Jerry Cosley, TWA’s vice president for public affairs, wrote in a memo that the airline had been “mugged” by union leaders.
Two years later, Mr. Meyer met with local officers of the Machinists at a Holiday Inn conference room to make another case for concessions from them. One by one they stood up to grill him. How many vice presidents did TWA have? It had 42. Did Mr. Meyer and his family fly first class free of charge? They did. Why had his pay increased 11% in 1983? Mr. Meyer said he worked hard and, at the time of the raise, expected TWA would make a small profit in 1983. He later gave up the raise, reducing his salary to $270,000 a year.
After leaving TWA in 1985, Mr. Meyer became CEO of Hilton International, where he remained until retiring in 1988. Running a profitable company came as a relief.
In his retirement, Mr. Meyer lived in New Canaan, Conn., and spent much of his time golfing, playing bridge and investing in the stock market. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Ruth, two sons and four granddaughters.
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