“In the world you have tribulation,
but take courage;
I have overcome the world.”
JOHN 16:33 NASB
THE VANGUARD AIRLINES FLIGHT from Kansas City to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport broke through the overcast sky just over the southern tip of Manhat-tan Island. As the old MD-80 broke through the clouds, the pilot, Captain Ed King, and I remarked almost simultaneously how beautiful the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center looked that early morning. The magnificent skyscrapers, both stretching 1,350 feet from the city streets, towered peacefully above the rest of the island, beautifully illuminated against the Manhattan skyline.
At the time, I had been serving for about five months as president and CEO of Vanguard Airlines, a small carrier based in Kansas City, Missouri. Vanguard had struggled badly before I assumed leadership, and it desperately needed an infusion of new capital, so our primary shareholder and I were in New York for a series of meetings with some potential investors. Van-guard had been doing better financially in the few months prior to my trip to New York, and I was feeling very hopeful that it would be a fruitful trip.
As was often my practice when I took a Vanguard flight, I spent the last hour of the trip riding in the cockpit, chatting with the crew. The flight was running nearly three hours late, a typical delay going into New York under the circumstances. In the previous twelve hours, thunderstorms had severely disrupted air traffic on the East Coast—an all-too-common occurrence, as most frequent air travelers know—and nearly every flight going out of and coming into the Big Apple was delayed.
Our approach into LaGuardia took us on a horseshoe-shaped path north along the Hudson River, parallel to Man-hattan, then back to the southeast for what commercial pilots know can be a tricky landing. After the flight was on the ground, I gathered my bags and headed to a Manhattan hotel to catch a few hours’ sleep. It was already close to 2 a.m., and I wanted to be well rested for that day’s meetings with the investors.
That day was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
I awoke later that morning rested and ready to take on our presentations. I showered, dressed, then spent some time reading my Bible and praying. I hadn’t turned on the radio or the television in my room. Just as I was about to call our majority stockholder, Rich (Rich has asked that his full name not be included in this book), the phone rang. It was Rich.
I expected to talk with Rich about coordinating the events of the day, which included our first meeting at 10 a.m. Rich, however, had something else on his mind, something that would shake the world, including the world of the airline industry, to its very core.
“Scott, you’d better turn on your TV,” Rich said. “Something big is happening. There has been some kind of plane crash.”
A plane crash of any kind is always a major concern for someone in the airline industry, so I immediately turned on the television in my hotel room. I was horrified at what I saw.
Huge clouds of smoke poured from near the top of the World Trade Center’s north tower. As I listened to the news report, I learned that an airliner had indeed crashed into the tower. At first, I thought it was some kind of terrible accident. My mind went to an incident in 1945, near the end of World War II, when a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, then the world’s tallest building.
But I soon realized that this was no accident. As I continued watching, at just after 9 a.m. eastern standard time, a second plane struck the south tower. I knew then that our nation was under some kind of attack.
Later, I, along with the rest of the world, learned that Muslim extremists had hijacked a pair of planes—American Flight 11 and United Flight 175, both out of Boston—and crashed them into the towers. In addition, another flight—American Airlines Flight 77—had been hijacked and crashed into the side of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth doomed flight—United Airlines Flight 93—had been hijacked and headed east from Pennsylvania but had crashed before reaching its target.
At that moment, I felt more numbed than fearful. It hit me almost instantly that my wife, Priscilla, would be very worried about me, so I tried to call her to let her know that I was safe. My hotel was a little over a mile from the World Trade Center, but all my wife knew that morning was that I was in a Man-hattan hotel. She had no way of knowing whether or not I was a safe distance from the now-burning Twin Towers.
I dialed our home number several times—on the hotel phone and on my cell phone—but I couldn’t get through on either. I then tried to call my office, hoping someone there could contact Priscilla for me. Again, no success. Apparently, the phone lines were tied up by people calling into and out of New York City.
I called Rich so we could figure out what to do next. Rich, like many Americans by this time, was enraged at what had happened. His thoughts were about finding out who was responsible for this atrocity and about what kind of retribution we as a nation should mete out. My thoughts, however, were on Vanguard’s planes and the people who operated them. I wondered if they were all safely on the ground.
Neither of us knew quite what to do, so we decided to go ahead and make our appearance at our first meeting. We ar-ranged to meet in the hotel lobby, and I hung up the phone and prepared to leave my room. But just as I was about to walk out the door around 10:00, I heard the news on the television that the Pentagon had been hit and that all United States flights had been grounded.
As I left my room and headed toward the hotel lobby, all kinds of thoughts raced through my mind. I thought about the people who had lost their lives in the attack and about the implications for our country. I also thought about what this all would mean to the airline industry, particularly to Van-guard and its employees. Our airline had been just scraping by financially, and I knew that any interruption in our ability to fly would likely put us in dire straits.
And I thought about my son, David, who had been in China for the past several months teaching English as a second language. He was scheduled to fly home that very morning.
Rich and I met in the hotel lobby, then walked up Park Avenue from our midtown Manhattan hotel to the site of that first meeting. As you might expect, it wasn’t a very productive time as far as our presentation was concerned. All of us were at a loss for words, at least when it came to discussing investments in Vanguard Airlines. All we could think or talk about was the people we knew who had offices at the World Trade Center and about implications of the attack for the airline industry.
After our meeting, Rich and I headed for the street and hurried back to our hotel. Our journey back was against a flood of people streaming north away from the towers, which by then had collapsed. It was an unforgettable scene. A dense cloud of smoke hovered in the south from the towers, and there was an acrid odor in the air. As we made our way across town, we saw tens of thousands of terrified people lining every north-south street we passed. People in cars, taxis, and buses, as well as those on bikes and on foot, fled lower Man-hattan and the vicinity of the World Trade Center towers as fast as they could. I was struck not only by the number of people I saw fleeing but by how orderly they did so.
When I returned to the hotel, I immediately checked to see if the phones were working. They were, so I called home. As I knew she would be, my wife was extremely worried about me. To this day, the conversation remains a blur. I remember telling Priscilla that I was about a mile from the World Trade Center and that I was safe. And I remember asking her about our son. I was grateful and relieved to learn that he had arrived home about five that morning.
Priscilla and I assured one another of our love and prayers, and after we hung up, I called the Vanguard corporate office to let the people there know that I was okay. They, too, were relieved to hear from me. As I talked to several of the company’s officers, I learned that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had ordered the immediate grounding of all aircraft in the United States. I was amazed and thankful to learn that when the cease-flying order came, all but one of our planes was already on the ground at our home base. That one other aircraft was safely on the ground in Atlanta. Our flight from LaGuardia back to Kansas City had left New York on schedule that morning, about ninety minutes before the chaos started, and had already reached its destination.
As I finished my conversations with the people at the office and hung up the phone, the reality of our situation began to set in. I knew that the following weeks and months would be like none I had ever experienced in my professional life. It was during that time that I would have to apply everything I’d learned about corporate leadership.
The few days following the terrorist attacks passed in a blur. I was away from my home base in Kansas City, but I was still busy. I operated a pseudo command center out of my hotel room in New York, conferring regularly with my staff about all the new security directives the FAA and other government bodies had handed down. It seemed that we were receiving new directives every few hours, which only added to the stress of dealing with the events of the past few days.
During those times when I ventured outside the hotel, I saw a lower Manhattan that looked and sounded eerily different from what it had looked and sounded like just a few days earlier. If you’ve ever been on the streets of Manhattan during the busy part of a typical day, you know that they are usually teeming with many thousands of people heading in all directions. But this, of course, was not a typical day. The streets were nearly empty and it was much quieter than usual. About the only sounds I heard were of military aircraft flying overhead, barely above the tops of the New York City skyscrapers.
On Thursday of that week, two days after the attack, the FAA’s cease-flying order was partially lifted, and I was able to board Rich’s private plane and fly from New York back to Kansas City. My secretary picked me up at the general aviation terminal at Kansas City International, which was only a few minutes from Vanguard’s offices.
When I walked into the Vanguard Airlines office, I was met by the greetings of officers and staff members, who were all greatly relieved that I was safely home, and by what seemed like an unending string of questions about what I’d seen and heard. Rather than repeat the story a dozen times, I gathered our officers and key staff into my office to talk to them about my experience and what it meant to all of us.
When I called that meeting, I did so knowing that our airline (like all other commercial carriers) faced incredible and immediate challenges. We would have to deal with the needs of our employees as well as the needs of hundreds of customers stranded at our hub in Kansas City and elsewhere around our network.
That morning, I heard all kinds of questions but had few immediate answers. Where would our stranded customers stay and how long would they be stranded? When would the FAA allow us to resume flying? What kind of future does Vanguard Airlines face?
Fortunately, one of those questions was answered the following day, when the FAA allowed airlines to resume flying. Now, we would be faced with the daunting task of reaccommodating thousands of passengers with new flights. The job would be herculean, but the Vanguard employees were up to it, and within a few days the backlog of customers was cleared out and people got where they needed to be.
While we were successful in our efforts to serve our passengers in the wake of the September 11 attacks, we at Van-guard still faced mounting stress and never-ending questions over the following days, weeks, and months.
My hotel was a little over a mile from the World Trade Center, but all my wife knew that morning was that I was in a Manhattan hotel. She had no way of knowing whether or not I was a safe distance from the now-burning Twin Towers.
The terrorist attacks did significant damage to the American economy, already headed into a recession at the time, and we in the airline industry felt that damage immediately.
In the days following the attacks, the industry as a whole lost millions of dollars a day as people, many afraid to board a flight and many facing uncertainty in their own financial lives, mostly stopped buying tickets. The airline industry is what is called a “cash-flow business,” meaning that most airlines rely heavily on daily cash disbursements from sales made on Web sites, through reservation centers, and through travel agencies. With this cash flow mostly dried up, airlines struggled to pay employees, contractors, and vendors of key services, such as fuel companies. All of us in the industry knew that the loss of any of a number of key vendors’ services would cause a shutdown of all or part of our networks.
At Vanguard, dramatically reduced sales, customer service issues prompted by the security regulations, vendor demands for payments, and an enormous reduction in the desire of in-vestors to put money into any airline—let alone one like Van-guard, which had a history of financial difficulties—became both daily and long-term issues.
Over the ten months that followed the terrorist attacks, Van-guard struggled greatly but continued its operations. By the summer of 2002, however, the airline’s financial situation worsened. We were in the midst of a good summer season; ticket sales were up dramatically. But a bizarre combination of events occurred, events that would lead to the end of Vanguard.
Around 95 percent of Vanguard’s ticket sales were done through credit card transactions. The banks that processed many of these sales began to become nervous about our financial situation (we were literally surviving day to day) and re-quired changes in the way those transactions were collateralized—that is, protected against potential default by the airline. The banks increased our level of collateralization, which meant that for every dollar we brought in through bank card sales, they held back about $1.20 of our future sales. We were, despite our high level of sales at the time, in a negative cash-flow situation.
This had been an ongoing crisis for some months, but it hit a peak in the summer as our sales volume shot up. The more we sold, the more the credit card processors sought collateral. In a very real sense, our own success was killing us. We were in deep financial trouble. Our shareholders could not provide more capital, and the U.S. government refused to provide a loan guarantee.
In nearly three decades in the transportation industry, I had never experienced such an unusual juxtaposition of financial events. This pushed Vanguard to the brink of bankruptcy. Finally, on July 28, 2002, our board and senior staff agreed that we had no choice but to suspend operations and file for protection under Chapter 11.
July 29 was one of the most miserable days of my life. We had to face the media and we had to announce the bankruptcy to our eleven hundred employees—people I cared for personally, people who would, at least temporarily, be losing their livelihoods—and to our frustrated and greatly inconvenienced customers. We also had to alert our shareholders, who would be facing the loss of their financial investments in Vanguard, and to our vendors and suppliers, who would also suffer loss.
I was heartbroken over the demise of Vanguard Airlines. But at the same time, I saw up close and personally how applying the principles of leading in difficult times can make times of struggle and even failure times when God does great things in and through us.
I saw how God’s plan involves the building of character, faith, and a life of prayer in the Christian leader and how building those things within us sometimes means going through difficult times. But I also saw how when He builds these qualities within us, He also prepares us for the next test and for the next assignment. In so doing, He shows us how to persevere and how to deal with tough times and the stress those tough times always bring with them.
Read on, and you will see how Christian leaders can persevere and overcome—in the best of times and in the most difficult of times.