DALLAS -- Moving with urgency, a few top Braniff executives secretly plotted the airline's shutdown in a 'war room environment,' knowing any leak would spark a stampede of jet seizures and total liquidation of the company.
In an interview, Sam Coats, Braniff's chief spokesman, provided an inside look at the final days of Braniff, which declared bankruptcy last week. It was the nation's eighth largest airline.
Immediately after what would become the stockholders' last annual meeting on May 6, just a week before the collapse, a small group of Braniff executives sat at an ornate wooden table in the executive suite and discussed options to avert the impending disaster.
Secret talks began with other airlines and potential outside investors, but the news was grim. Coats recalled: 'we were very depressed. Basically, we had not found anybody who had the interest level we needed.'
'The company's revenue was just deteriorating. The cash was going out at a faster and faster rate.'
A 12-member team assembled early Monday morning, May 10, and was told Braniff might have to be closed.
'We told them, 'Friends, if this leaks, we're dead.'' Coats recalled. 'We may as well liquidate it. We're going to have people snatching airplanes wherever they can be found.
'If you can't get every airplane back here in the states, and hopefully back to home base (in Dallas), our chances of going into a reorganization are shot to hell.'
Coats recalled the meeting was emotional. 'There were some white faces going out of that room ... I remember saying, 'If we have to shut it down, none of us fully appreciates the economic devastation that this will cause.''
That afternoon, Braniff president Howard Putnam and top aides flew to New York City to testify in a lawsuit brought by the pilots who would lose their jobs if Braniff leased its South America routes to Eastern Airlines.
Putnam was calling his Dallas headquarters almost hourly and Coats said: 'It was almost a war room environment. We formulated the initial shutdown plan ... We decided then to go ahead and begin lopping off operations and repositioning aircraft.
'We didn't want to get any airplanes captured in South America ... We would have never gotten the airplanes back. I gave the order Tuesday morning to begin shutting down South America.'
The team began 'creating' mechanical problems with aircraft and claiming weather problems were preventing jets from returning to South America.
It was difficult for those who knew the truth. Coats and Putnam had gone to a Sunday night employee party in Fort Worth and 'tried to put on a good face.'
Braniff had retained bankruptcy counsel several months earlier, just in case, and urgent briefings began on the options under federal bankruptcy law.
Senior management took one last look at the passenger loads, Coats said, and 'They were atrocious, just atrocious.'
When Putnam called from the New York courtroom, his top financial aide, Phil Guthrie, said the words everyone feared: 'We've got to start shutting it down. There's no way we can continue.'
Back in court, an attorney for the Air Line Pilots Association told Putnam during cross examination that ALPA had a contractual right to strike because leasing the South American routes constituted a 'major' labor dispute.
'What would happen if we struck you in South America?' the attorney asked Putnam.
That question caused rumors, Coats said.
Coats said people called asking, 'Is it true the pilots are going to grab your planes -- your DC-8s, and hold them for ransom?
'It was one of those statements ... that just mushroomed,' Coats said. 'When we did start shutting down South America there was a logical reason.'
Putnam returned to Dallas late Tuesday; meetings lasted into the next morning. The senior management team was 'really scared' about security problems and the possibility of a riot when employees were 'blown away' with the airline.
Another problem involved more than 50 guests in Braniff's hotel at itsheadquarters. They were quietly moved to other hotels Wednesday morning after being told that Braniff's cafeteria was out of order.
Then came the point of no return -- cancelling flights to move aircraft closer to Dallas.
'We looked at the schedules,' Coats said. 'For instance, we looked at a Houston-LaGuardia (New York) flight and said, 'We'll shut that mother off at Houston -- cancel it and try to reroute the passengers.''
Braniff canceled its premier Dallas-London flight and decided to fly the Dallas-Honolulu route with a leased aircraft 'so if it got grabbed it would be a leased airplane.' The flight became Braniff's last.
Late in the afternoon, a brief announcement was given to the press. Braniff was ceasing all operations.
The secret plan worked flawlessly, Coats said. He claimed that infuriated bankers, arriving at Braniff after the bankruptcy, grudgingly admired the way it was done.
'It caught them by surprise,' he said 'They were the last people we wanted to know because they had secured interests in all these airplanes. Had they gotten wind of it, they would have said 'That's my airplane.'
'We would have never seen them again. It was essential that the very people who were holding our lifeline be totally in the dark. Chase Manhattan, First International, Citibank, Prudential. They were the last people we wanted to know.
'As it turned out, they were caught with their britches down ... And some of them were really ticked off. We had a very, very antagonistic group of bankers in our offices on Friday. Very angry, very angry.'
Late Wednesday, just a few hours after the end, Coats was driving to a restaurant near Braniff's headquarters but screeched to a halt.
'I looked up in the air and there was a Braniff plane,' he said. 'It was being ferried back from Memphis and it was just eerie. I just sat there in the car and cried. The airline was dead and yet here was this jet coming in.'