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When Niki Lauda Ran an Airline

MIAMI ( TheStreet) - For Niki Lauda, I imagine, running an airline made race car driving look easy.

Lauda, a world-famous, retired Formula One race car driver is about to become even more famous with the nationwide release of the movie Rush, which examines the rivalry between him and another driver, James Hunt.

On an October evening in 1995, Lauda came into The Miami Herald newsroom for an interview. We were in the Biscayne Bay building then, and Lauda wanted to drop by, rather than to meet somewhere else. I always had the impression that curious people liked to come to our newsroom, with its dramatic views and storied history.

I realized how famous Lauda was when, as we walked to a conference room, an editor asked for an autograph. It was the only time in my career I ever saw that happen.

Lauda visited because Miami was the only U.S. destination for Lauda Air. The day he came in, he complained about two problems the airline was experiencing. First, his flight had been loaded too slowly in Munich, almost causing it to miss its slotted takeoff time. He told me that crews from Lufthansa, Lauda Air's partner, were responsible for loading. "We had to kick their butts," he said, according to my story in The Herald.

Another problem occurred regularly at cramped Miami International Airport, where Lauda Air shared a gate with Lufthansa. Sometimes, Lauda said, the Lauda Air plane could not get into its gate in the afternoon because the Lufthansa plane hadn't left yet. "We need another gate," Lauda said. "This is unacceptable." But complaining to the airport made little difference. "They tell us we are Lufthansa's partner and we must share a gate," a Lauda Air spokesperson told The Herald.

Put these two stories together and you can see why the airline business, which on the one hand is sufficiently inspiring to attract the Laudas of the world, is also immensely frustrating. A thunderstorm in Chicago can tear up an entire day's schedule for United (UAL - Get Report) , the world's largest airline. Last week, a gunman's attack on the Washington Navy Yard temporarily halted departures from Washington Reagan National Airport, resulting in six cancellations and various delays for hub carrier US Airways (LCC). All too often, such exogenous events shape a carrier's fate.
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