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Trump: I ran a great airline Add to ...

Of course, the pilots' enthusiasm largely reflects the labour situation at Eastern. On March 4, 1989, pilots and flight attendants struck Eastern, agreeing to honour an International Association of Machinists picket line. In response, Eastern sought bankruptcy court protection. A few pilots trickled across the picket line, but most stayed out as the carrier shrunk. The 168 Eastern Shuttle pilots who went to the Trump Shuttle -- along with a close-knit team of flight attendants, fleet service workers, mechanics and agents -- considered themselves to be far better off.

With Nobles absorbing many of the punches, some of airline's middle managers also found the shuttle a good place to work.

Randy Smith recalls that Trump would suddenly call management meetings at the Trump Tower, with some staffers coming from an office near La Guardia Airport, a 30-minute drive. "He would suddenly call you all together," Smith said. "I would ask my boss, 'what's the topic?' and he would say 'I don't know.' Sometimes it would be something out of left field. "But he recognized that he was a real estate and casino guy, and he let the airline people run the place," said Smith, who has since left the airline business. "He had ideas, he would poke around asking questions, and he exhibited one of the things I love when I am hiring and promoting people: he has the curiosity gene. If you had the facts and approached him in the right manner, you could persuade him to a different position."

Ironically, Trump won the shuttle in a bidding war with America West, now part of US Airways -- meaning it would have ended up with US Airways in either case. Another irony is that the pilots from US Airways insisted on seniority integration that gave shuttle pilots little credit for their years at Eastern, said Belz, now retired from the carrier. The seniority formula was devised by arbitrator George Nicolau, who would later apply a similar formula in the integration of US Airways and America West. But the second time, the US Airways pilots opposed it.

Although Trump said in 1989 that he wanted to create ''the best transportation system of any kind in the entire world'' at the shuttle, aviation consultant George Hamlin said "One of the lessons of the shuttle is that you are providing basic transportation." Passengers would not pay extra for luxury. Moreover, the shuttles competed not only among themselves, but also with Amtrak, which kept a lid on fares.

As a historical lesson, Trump's involvement underscores the proposition that "when you burden an airline with debt, bad things off happen," Hamlin said. "Trump said the shuttle was going to be a diamond in the sky, but it turned into a lump of coal."

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