The first airplane TWA President and Chief Executive Officer Capt. William F. Compton ever rode on was a DC-3 from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Lima, Peru when he was six months old. He doesn’t remember that flight, but he does recall another trip on a DC-3, when he was eight years old and his father, an Air Force pilot, brought the family from South America to their new home in Coral Gables, Fla., just south of Miami International Airport. “I used to ride my bicycle there and sit under the approach lights and watch airplanes take off,” Compton says.
At age 12, Compton’s dad gave him his first flying lesson. “It was a little Piper Cub that had this little stick to maneuver,” he says. “It was pretty good fun.” So fun, he got a private pilot’s license at age 16, a commercial license at age 18, and worked as a flight instructor while attending Miami-Dade College. At age 20 Compton was hired as a flight engineer for Northeastern Airlines, which later became part of Delta. “I decided I didn’t want to fly for a little airline, so I kept instructing until I turned 21,” he says. “Then in 1968 Trans World Airlines hired me as a pilot, so here I am.”
Here he is, indeed—head of a $3.2 billion corporation that employs more than 21,000 people worldwide (9,000 locally), serves more than 24 million passengers a year, operates about 825 flights a day and reaches more than 120 destinations in 18 countries.
The aviation industry has changed considerably in Compton’s 30-plus years with TWA. “When I came to work it was a regulated environment,” he says. “The airlines were told where to fly and what to charge.” Another dramatic change is, “back then, anyone who got on an airplane wore a coat and tie, and the ladies wore white gloves. Flying was an event.” Now, he says, “it’s mass transportation.”
Just like the aviation industry, TWA is continually adapting to new opportunities. This summer the airline added its first “focus city,” San Juan, Puerto Rico, and will add a second one next year. Compton explains, “St. Louis is a great hub but it’s our only domestic hub. The focus cities are like very small hubs that allow us to diversify our route structure. That’s pretty exciting stuff for us.”
Equally exciting are new additions to TWA’s fleet, including up to 100 Boeing 717s. “The 717 is a brand new airplane and TWA will only be the second airline to fly it,” he says. He flew the production model at the Boeing factory. “It was a test bed with a cabinet full of computers where they took all kinds of measurements,” he says. “That airplane is going to be the most fun. It has all the latest gadgets, and pilots like gadgets.” TWA is also buying up to 150 airplanes.
Compton maintains his rating as an MD-80 captain and “flies the line” once every month or two. He likes to fly to destinations where line employees don’t see senior management very often. “They’ll have an entirely different discussion with me when I’m in work clothes versus a business suit,” he says. “I find it very beneficial.”
Flying the line also gives Compton a chance to mingle with customers. On a recent leg from Des Moines to St. Louis, as he walked through the terminal, “a little old lady with a walker stopped me and said, ‘Aren’t you the president of TWA?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘I want you to know I’m a proud stockholder of TWA. I just bought 500 shares. We need the stock to go up!’ And I said, ‘We need you to travel more often!’” Compton’s wife, Dreana, by the way, is a TWA flight attendant. “She has six months seniority over me,” he says.
Besides flying, Compton gets enormous satisfaction from serving on the boards of Civic Progress, the Greater St. Louis Area Boy Scout Council and the RCGA. Naturally he participates in discussions about airport expansion. “But it’s also very important, with TWA having a major hub here, that we have a growing and prosperous community,” he says, “and that the region grows both in population and economically.”
In that regard, Compton believes TWA plays a critical role. “Maybe this is a little presumptuous,” he says, “but I think TWA makes or breaks the economy, not just in St. Louis but also Eastern Missouri.” To illustrate the airline’s impact, he explains, the city of San Jose, Calif., calculated one international route from there generated $200 million of economic activity for the area. “With TWA providing nonstop flights from St. Louis to London or Paris or Honolulu, each one generates enormous value for the community,” Compton says. “As a result, businesses locate here because they can go non-stop virtually anywhere in the world. So we think TWA brings more economic benefit to the community than practically any other enterprise.”
Looking ahead, Compton says his plans for TWA are “to make it a profitable and successful company for the benefit of all our constituencies: the communities we serve, our employees and our shareholders.” As for himself, he says, “In a perfect world, I’d be flying an airplane.”