By Labor Day weekend, bookings were dismal. And the cancellation parachute on the charter contract would increase to 75% in a few days. "Ted's Excellent Adventure," a slogan coined by Freedom publicist Margie Craig, was headed toward a foamed runway replete with emergency vehicles.
Hall almost canceled the October trips. "But that's not what I said I was going to do," he recalled. The Halls moved forward, cutting already competitive fares to $198 one way, $396 round trip. "I told Jinni that I can live better with losing money than going back on my word," Hall said.
It's no small change. The losses from savings and his retirement fundcould exceed $200,000, he says. And if he and American Trans Air had not worked out an equipment change last Thursday--from a larger L-1011 to the 727--his ante would have climbed an additional 100 grand. As it is, his ticket for each 727 round trip, Hall says, is $39,000. (Between 100 and 120 round-trip, and paying, passengers are needed to break even on each.)
He had hoped for some support from the tobacco industry, but has had little or no contact with it in the past five months. He underestimated how critical, and expensive, advertising would be in Chicago and Los Angeles. He needs, but can't afford, more promotion and more frequent flights.
"The market is there," Hall says. "It just has to be served. I realize I'm woefully inadequate. It will take a regular schedule."
That, airline industry watchers and on-board travel agents say, and a frequent flier plan.
An upbeat Hall still thinks someone, probably a major carrier, should tap the market. Regardless, he's not sorry about the money spent. "I guess I may have invested it in learning how to run a charter company. I look at it as paying for an education. I've established my credibility. . . . And all of the bills will be paid."
Most passengers for Freedom Air Flight 1 started arriving for check-in at Terminal 4 (located on the bottom floor of an O'Hare parking garage) about an hour or so before its scheduled 9 a.m. departure. The Film at Eleven Folks had already assembled, and each person who passed through the doors received a similar greeting: Are you a \o7 real \f7 passenger, a newshound, or a travel agent?
When it became obvious there were precious few of the first, the travel agents became excellent clip-and-bite material. A half-dozen TV crews--some Windy City stations showed up but didn't fly--jockeyed for position. "A Current Affair" had to re-shoot Robin Dorian's stroll to the flight counter when another videographer, obviously not a regular ACA viewer, tried to film her entrance and had to be chastened: The light atop his video camera had harmed ACA's shot; he was getting in the way. There were no other ugly incidents.
The charter backed from its midfield gate a bit late, but was airborne by 9:25. Less than 10 minutes later, Captain Bob Kuba announced: "And now the moment you've been waiting for--if I can get this switch off. It hasn't been turned off in 2 1/2 years."
The "No Smoking" light went dark; Ted Hall's face, then his cigarette, lit up. He had, he said, mixed emotions: "I would have liked to have seen a full plane, but I'll never forget this thing."
(Hall would smoke an entire pack of Camels during the next 3 1/2 hours. Most, he said, were for the benefit of camera crews. Other people, possibly tired of photographers or still flinching from the $3.70-per-pack rate at the O'Hare Hilton, smoked considerably less.)
Travel agent Terence Grace quickly followed Hall's lead. He's glad to see Freedom Air, he said while exhaling a cloud, calling the airline smoking ban hypocritical: "They let you drink on board and then go drive your car. But they won't let you smoke. Drunk drivers kill a lot more people than secondhand smoke."
Still, he's unsure how much potential Freedom Air has, particularly with such limited flights.
Smoker/agent Gary Haverkamp was more skeptical: "He's got guts for trying it. But in the end, I don't think it's going to fly."
Grace, Haverkamp and other agents on board flew back Tuesday with the five \o7 real\f7 passengers booked for Freedom Air's 12:45 p.m. return to Chicago.
It would be a long day, but probably worth it for those on Flight 1.
For somewhere--be it a local Chicago or Los Angeles station or affiliate, a British or American network, or maybe even "A Current Affair"--the odds were most excellent that everyone would be on television.
Marty Stollar could bet on it.