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The following is an interview with Tom Davis in the days preceding the merger with USAir by Rosalind Chostner, one of the former editors of the Piedmonitor, Piedmont Airline's employee newspaper.
Q: The general aviation company that preceded Piedmont was known as Camel City Flying Service. When you took over the company in 1940, you changed the name to Piedmont. Why did you choose this name?
Tom Davis: Shortly before we set up Piedmont Aviation, Inc., we were expanding and building a new hangar. I was watching the steel go up one day and talking with Charlie Norfleet, an officer in the trust department at Wachovia Bank and a very good friend of mine who later became a member of Piedmont's Board of Directors. He was very active in aviation and was active in working to bring in air service to Winston-Salem. I said I thought we ought to change our name because it seemed to me that Camel City Flying Service was more confining geographically than I would like to see the company be down the road ... Piedmont is certainly a well-known name around the Piedmont area of North Carolina, but I recall in those days, for example, one of the major hotels in Atlanta was the Piedmont Hotel. The strict definition of the name - which means the area formed at the base of the mountains - technically extends all the way from Alabama to New York. So, after talking with several people, we chose the name Piedmont.
Q: During the company's early years did you dream of adding an airline division? When did you realize that this dream might become a reality?
Tom Davis: When we started in 1940 we were distributors for Piper Cub and Stinson Reliant aircraft, and one of my major responsibilities was to set up dealerships all over the state to handle retail sales. We were familiar with airline operations, but frankly, I did not seriously consider it until the end of the war for a number of reasons. First, we were growing pretty fast and had our nose to the grindstone setting up a sales organizations and aircraft sales program. Second, during the war we were busy with our training programs. Third, in those days, the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board) tightly controlled airline route awards and had not certified any new airlines since the time the board was established under the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. Prior to that time, the Department of Commerce issued some certificates to some airlines. Under the new legislation, the CAB would grant new routes to established, "grandfather" airlines but not to any new companies. A company could operate intrastate without CAB certificate, but to fly interstate or carry the U.S. Mail, a certificate was necessary. PSA started up like this... The war was coming to a close and we had a lot of people on the payroll in the training program, and we knew that if we went back to doing what we had done before the war, we wouldn't have jobs for all those people. So we filed an application for local service routes in the southeastern area. We also were seeking to expand our general aviation operations. I made several trips to many cities in North and South Carolina and Virginia to talk with local authorities about granting us operational rights at their particular airports. I also talked to other fixed based operators to see if they would be willing to sell their companies to us. In addition, we filed an application for an all-freight route.
Q: Before starting the airline, you had to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to get a temporary license. What was involved?
Tom Davis: As I have noted, the CAB tightly controlled any route expansion and the establishment of new airlines. When we were awarded our route certificate, other airlines, in particular State Airlines in Charlotte, exhausted every opportunity to upset the CAB decision because they wanted these routes. Prior to that point, we had used local counsel for guidance even though they had no previous airline experience other than working with the CAB trying to get airline service to Winston-Salem. When our case went to the Supreme Court, we felt we needed counsel with more experience in the airline industry and more experience dealing with the Supreme Court, so we employed the firm of Stockton, Ulmer, and Merchuson, headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. Charlie Merchuson was one of the deans of airline law in the U.S. He was the one who actually guided the presentation, the strategies that we should follow in pursuing this case to see that the court came out with the decision affirming what the CAB had already done. It was a tough battle but one we had to undertake to ensure that the certificate was not taken away.
Q: What part did the general aviation division play in Piedmont's success, particularly in the early years?
Tom Davis: General aviation was the glue that held everything together during the lean periods. When we did get our airline certificate, we decided we were not going to abandon our general aviation operation. So we set up a corporation with two separate divisions, general aviation and the airline. General aviation continued to make a lot of money and helped us particularly through the early years, such as when we were awaiting for the Supreme Court's decision.
Q: During the airline's early years, did you ever envision Piedmont becoming a major carrier?
Tom Davis: I did envision that we would continue to grow, but in view of the very tight control the CAB maintained in awarding new certificates to new companies, it seemed to me that maybe our growth would be more in the avenue of interchange agreements with existing airlines. Under an interchange agreement, the CAB would approve an airline that had a certificate for a particular route segment joining another airline with a route that extended beyond that segment to offer a through flight. A number of airlines had such agreements. I thought that this would be one way we could break out of our eggshell that the CAB kept us all in and ultimately get the authority ourselves. I had discussions with Delta for possible interchange agreements but we carried a lot of business that ultimately went to Chicago through Cincinnati. Also, we were looking for ways to introduce newer and more modern equipment. But we never entered into any of these agreements.
Q: What do you see as the positive effects of deregulation on Piedmont and on the industry as a whole? Any negative results?
Tom Davis: Looking back, I think deregulation has been one of the best things that's happened to the airline industry and the public. It's got some problems there's no question about it. It's like anything else, you generally can't buy an item in small quantities for the price you can buy it in big quantities because of the cost of providing the item. On the whole, without deregulation, there's no doubt in my mind we would not be able to price our product so that it would be affordable to the masses in many, many markets.
Q: What three or four events in Piedmont's history would you single out as being most significant?
Tom Davis: In our very early years, we competed with other companies for aircraft sales and government contracts for pilot training programs, and we were fortunate in being selected as one of the 12 contractors in the United States War Training Service. Following on with that, we were selected by the State Department to train Central and South Americans, one of the very few companies in the U.S. so selected. Those achievements came, I am convinced, because we had done a fairly good job of doing what we had been doing before that. It gave us the opportunity to employ a lot of people and increase our earnings.
Our next major step was being selected to operate a scheduled airline. We were also one of the first of the local service airlines to get in the field - turbo-prop and pure jet.
Another major development was obviously deregulation. Without deregulation, Piedmont would be, in my opinion, not more than a third of the size it is today.
Q: Over the years, Piedmont has flown nine different aircraft types: DC-3s, F-27s, Martin 404s, FH-227s, YS-11s, B727s, B737s, F28s, and B767s. Do you have a favorite among those that have carried the Piedmont name? A least favorite?
Tom Davis: They're all good, but if I had to name one it would be the B737, which we chose for several reasons. It has the capability of operating in and out of relatively small airports with a bigger load than its competitors. And one factor I think a lot of people have overlooked is that Piedmont, throughout its history, has operated in and out of more small airports in mountainous terrain than most any other airline. Look at Tri-Cities, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Charleston, W.V., Asheville, and on and on. We were right in the middle of some mountains with no big valleys. So we had to look for a piece of equipment that would operate in and out of those relatively small airports and carry a good size load. At the same time, it has the capability of fast cruising speeds and good flight characteristics and it is roomy.
Each different fleet type did have its own peculiarities. The YS-11's primary problem was the air conditioning system and we had a terrible time with it. We had some engine problems even though they had Rolls Royce engines. In the F-27's, which also had Rolls Royce engines, we'd had marvelous results. The Martin 404'2 had some shortcomings, too. Of course it was a used aircraft when we bought it, but it was readily available and we were growing rapidly in those days. It gave us pressurization and air conditioning even thought the air conditioning put out a lot of smoke, or what looked like smoke but was actually condensation, that would come out of the ventilators. Passengers were frequently concerned that the airplane was on fire. But on the whole, I think the 737 met in an around-fashion our requirements.
Q: You have seen the airline industry change dramatically during your lifetime. What do you consider to be the most significant changes.
Tom Davis: The industry's a far cry from what it was when I started. The technical progress that the industry has been able to make has been extremely significant. On a recent flight, as we were making our approach, I thought to myself, "Look at all of the comfort we have." I had just finished a nice dinner, flying at great speed, and I looked down at the earth from a perspective that not too many years ago no one would have ever dreamed of. You know, that Wright Brothers flight wasn't too far back from the beginning of our company's history. All of that has taken place in a very brief period of time, and I think that's a very fantastic development.
Another significant part has been the field of electronics. In the old days we flew the DC-3's across these mountains in some of the worst thunderstorms you ever saw. We didn't have radar then, so often flying was like walking through the woods with your eyes closed and hoping you didn't hit a tree. When flying through a thunder storm, if the air got a little too rough, well the pilot would turn around and go another way and try to dodge the severe turbulence. Today, we've got such sophistication that we can go through a thunderstorm with hardly a ripple, and equipment that makes it possible to get above the storm.
Another significant development has been the capability of automation. These airplanes can fly by autopilot right down to the ground and actually land without anyone actually touching the controls. That has made possible the reliability of scheduled operations. It use to be that if the ceiling got down below a couple of hundred feet of if we were flying in mountain terrain. Today, you can land or take off in almost 0-0 visibility. We haven't gotten approval down to that point yet, but we're not far from it. That has made possible a reliable air service that not too many years ago was out of the question.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
Tom Davis: I hope to be able to continue to participate in aviation. I'm still on several boards, such as Alltel, Brendle's, and Duke Power, and active as director emeritus on the boards of USAir, Wachovia, and several others. I'm active in industry and charitable functions, such as Wake Forest University Board of Trustees, Board of Visitors of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine, the Experimental Aircraft Association (Museum of Oshkosh), just to name a few.
I'm also looking forward to having time to travel more, play with my boat at the beach, and spend time out in Arizona.