FRANK LORENZO'S SAD LEGACY

FRANK LORENZO'S SAD LEGACY

Frank Lorenzo, among the most hated men in America, has walked away from his crumbling airline empire after nearly two decades of ruthless wheeling and dealing.

Only a few years ago, he had assembled the largest airline in the free world under the Texas Air umbrella. But in the process, he destroyed the careers of the men and women who had dedicated their lives to building proud airlines like Continental, Eastern and Frontier.Mr. Lorenzo was a product of deregulation. He was, indeed, deregulation incarnate.

The implicit thesis of the theology of laissez-faire is that unconstrained human greed will produce a better society. Saddling companies with debt, crushing unions and deceiving consumers are valuable skills in this environment of social Darwinism.

The pillage of companies by corporate raiders in contemporary America rivals that of the conquering Vandals and other barbarian tribes of ancient Europe. All used brute force to subvert, subdue and conquer, then took what they wanted as booty for their conquest. Of course, looting, robbing and pillaging breeds animosity among the indigenous population, who will resist to the death the oppression of their conquerors.

Mr. Lorenzo was a fierce warrior. It was he who, after acquiring Continental Airlines in a hostile takeover and saddling it with enormous debt, submerged the company in Chapter 11 bankruptcy to wash it clean of its union contracts. Mr. Lorenzo further diluted Continental's high level of service by subsequently ramming together workers from the widely disparate corporate cultures of Texas International, People Express, Frontier Airlines and New York Air, repainting all the planes in Continental's golden colors. The Proud Bird became an anemic hen of bargain-basement service and pricing.

After subduing Continental, Mr. Lorenzo undertook a hostile raid on Trans World Airlines that galvanized its unions to surrender major concessions to corporate raider Carl Icahn rather than be taken prisoner by the dreaded Mr. Lorenzo. But as TWA's workers soon learned, Mr. Icahn is Mr. Lorenzo in sheep's clothes.

Labor-management relations at Eastern Airlines were sour before Mr. Lorenzo captured that company in 1986; they quickly turned rotten as employees watched him strip Eastern of assets. Airline labor unions, which had taken a beating after President Reagan crushed the air traffic controller's strike, dug in for trench warfare.

Unions that traditionally were incompatible, like the machinists and the pilots, were unified by their hatred of one man and all he stood for - Frank Lorenzo. They were willing to strike rather than succumb to Mr. Lorenzo's extortion of more work for less pay, even at the risk that he might dismember Eastern in bankruptcy.

In a service industry, like airlines, employees are the front line with the customers, and they determine the tone and tenor of the experience. They can lure the customer back with quality service, or they can frighten him away with a miserable trip.

By slashing costs and alienating his workers, Mr. Lorenzo caused service at his airlines to plummet. Many business travelers would learn to boycott his companies. Their departure would cost Mr. Lorenzo billions.

Of course, service has deteriorated at nearly all the airlines under deregulation. And, with the industry becoming a highly concentrated oligopoly, many consumers have no alternative but to put up with a lousy ride. But Mr. Lorenzo's were worse than most. And eventually, his prices rose to march in lockstep with the other airlines.

Air transportation is a national resource. The publicly owned portion of the aviation infrastructure - all the airports and the air traffic control system combined - has been conservatively estimated by Ted Harris, an industry expert, to be worth $1 trillion. In contrast, the stock of all the publicly traded airlines is selling for about $15 billion combined.

In other words, the equivalent of 1.5 percent of the public investment is, under deregulation, determining how this vast national (and mostly publicly owned) resource is to be used.

It would be the equivalent of deregulating the motor carrier industry and turning over the interstate highways to the trucking companies - allowing them to set tolls at whatever the market will bear. Airline control of major

airports is precisely that power - the power to determine which regions of the nation enjoy service and at what price - the power to gouge consumers.

Safety, prices, service - under deregulation, all are determined by a handful of profit-maximizing corporate chief executives. A decade of deregulation in savings and loans, telecommunications, cable television, trucking, railroads and airlines should give us little cause for comfort. As the criminal indictments against Eastern suggest, profit drives everything, including the margin of safety.

Like the savings and loan pirates, Mr. Lorenzo exits the industry with a pocketful of money. His story is but one sad chapter in the failed experiment of deregulation - one, we must hope, which will never be repeated.