CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Airline icon Stephen Wolf remade three airlines, each time with Larry Nagin by his side.
Nagin, who died last week at 67, became Wolf's
, said Jerry Grinstein, himself an icon who remade
. Grinstein met Nagin, then a law student at the University of California, in the 1960s.
In the mid-1980s, Wolf and Nagin met at Flying Tigers, which they sold to
. They worked together at
, where they vastly extended the airline's reach, making it, for a time, the country's leading international carrier. And they reunited at
, where they began a revitalization that, in the end, they could not quite complete.
"Stephen is a very creative, innovative guy, very demanding and very precise, and he needed someone who was going to be his right hand, his adviser," Grinstein said. "When you are someone who is trying to make changes, you've got to have somebody alongside you making sure that you are being careful, that what you are doing is OK," he said.
"Larry had an index knowledge of tax codes, of how to deal with the FAA and the SEC, and of international (aviation legalities)," he said. "He was the ideal kind of lawyer who was never going to let anything slip up -- he was going to cover every aspect."
Moreover, although he was a brilliant airline executive, Wolf was far from outgoing. During six years at US Airways, he gave only a handful of media interviews and he sometimes seemed distant to employees. Nagin filled in those gaps, not just as a communications guru, but also as "a big teddy bear," said Caroline Ray, corporate secretary at US Airways, who Nagin hired in 2000.
"The first time I met him I was scared to death," Ray said. "He was such an overpowering individual, a big man. I was sitting in his office and he had pictures of himself with the Kennedys, and he was asking me questions." Later, Ray recalled, "He flew to North Carolina to come to my wedding. He was always so considerate, and he cared about people from all walks of life."
Born in San Francisco in 1941, Nagin began his aviation career in 1974 when, as senior assistant city attorney for Los Angeles, he advised the city's airports. In 1980, he joined Los Angeles-based Flying Tigers as senior vice president of corporate affairs and general counsel -- a title that, with a slight variation, he retained throughout his aviation career.
Flying Tigers was near bankruptcy when Wolf arrived in 1986. He convinced pilots to take a pay cut, refinanced debt, expanded international flying and painted airplanes. Nagin once recalled the Flying Tigers years as the best in their joint careers, because once costs were reduced, improvements were made easily and resulted quickly in a turnaround. That made Flying Tigers attractive to Fed Ex, which launched an $880 million takeover in 1987.
That year, Wolf joined United: Nagin followed in 1989. The pair transformed United, ordering the first 777 jets that
produced, adding the first European flights in United's history and expanding from 11 international destinations to 33.
Said Wolf: "By the time Larry joined United, I had developed a keen awareness that his abilities were much broader than legal. Clearly, he had a significant intellect and understood all of the competitive and regulatory issues, and was able to guide us in all of our international expansion."
For instance, Wolf said, Nagin oversaw United's effort to obtain a Chicago-Tokyo route in the late 1980s. Six Japan routes were available. "Larry came up with the idea to file for only one, the key route, and also with a comprehensive plan to generate political support, not just from officials in Illinois, but also in other cities that would feed the route," Wolf said. "We won it, a major coup for us, and we almost immediately put two 747s a day on it."
Besides overseeing communications, Nagin ran regulatory affairs and airport facilities, where his jobs included negotiating United's lease at the planned Denver International Airport, recalled United Senior Vice President Pete McDonald, then Denver station manager. "Larry was the top guy for getting those negotiations accomplished," McDonald said. "He was a very experienced, very shrewd negotiator. Steve had a vision for United, and Larry was the person who executed it."
Wolf and Nagin oversaw the sale of United to its employees, then left. Wolf worked as a consultant, while Nagin joined a law firm. They hooked up once more in 1996, joining USAir, which at the time seemed trapped in a time warp. Created by the merger of six smaller airlines, it had failed to obtain the cost savings that consolidations supposedly bring. Instead, it charged premium fares for short-hop flights in the Northeast -- a strategy that was doomed to fail as low-fare carriers invaded the region.
Wolf and Nagin placed a huge Airbus order, securing hundreds of planes at a relatively low cost; they changed the name, enhancing the airline's image and eliminating a division between predecessor carriers; and they launched an effort to make Philadelphia an international hub. Each of these endeavors continues to benefit US Airways.
But a 2000 effort to merge with United failed -- although it may someday be restarted. Subsequently, after an economic slump and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks crippled the airline industry, Wolf and Nagin turned the task of restructuring US Airways over to new management.
Over the years, Wolf said, "Larry became an exceptional friend, one whom I will miss dearly."