By William Lehman - US Airways Flight Attendant
In December 1974, New York native Paul Quakenbush incorporated Oneida County Aviation, whose primary role was to fuel aircraft that flew into Utica. At the time Allegheny Airlines served Utica-Rome, although the service offered was little compared to Mohawk Airlines, who had not only provided flights, but also called it home to its headquarters and maintenance.
Because Quakenbush believed Utica could support a second airline, Oneida County Aviation launched passenger service on September 22, 1975 flying a Piper Aztec between Utica and Syracuse. The route quickly became successful and Quakenbush decided to split the company into two parts: one for fueling airplanes at Utica and the other a new airline called Empire. Three months later, Empire Airlines added Newark to the route map with a Piper Navajo that seated six passengers. By the end of 1975, Empire had already carried 300 passengers.
By mid-1976, Empire phased out the Piper Aztec. In its place came a second Piper Navajo. At the same time, Empire dropped Syracuse from the route system and added Boston. As the year closed, Empire had carried 2,000 passengers using the two Navajos flying between Utica and Boston and Newark. Quakenbush realized if he really wanted Empire to expand and grow, he needed larger aircraft. In the fall, Quackenbush flew to San Antonio, Texas to meet with representatives from Fairchild Swearingen who were eager to sell the new Metroliner II. After touring the plant and taking a demonstration ride, Quakenbush signed a purchase order for five Swearingen Metroliner IIs, with the first delivery planned for mid-1977.
As 1977 dawned, Quackenbush spent a lot of time reviewing the history of Mohawk Airlines and admired Bob Peach’s leadership style. Like Peach, Quakenbush started courting airport officials, politicians, and local business to stand firmly behind Empire Airlines. In June 1977, Empire’s first Swearingen Metroliner II arrived in Utica. Quakenbush offered several demonstration flights to local officials to show off the new pressurized aircraft. Empire also engaged in heavy advertising to get residents used to flying out of Utica versus driving to Syracuse. By year-end Quackenbush’s hard work paid dividends as Empire carried record passenger traffic out of Utica.
In May 1978, Empire added the second Metroliner II to launch service to Hartford, Buffalo, New York-Kennedy, LaGuardia, and White Plains. Later in the year, Empire added Albany and relaunched service to Syracuse. As Empire was growing, Allegheny Airlines was retreating from several markets. Quakenbush had set a goal only one year earlier to board more passengers than Allegheny out of Utica, and as the larger airline was dropping flights and markets, Empire was very eager to add flights, continue to close the gap, and drive Allegheny completely out of the market. In December, Empire’s third Metroliner II arrived, allowing Empire to add additional flights into several markets. Much to Quakenbush’s surprise, the local airport authority and chamber of commerce started courting other airlines to start service at Utica. Quakenbush was furious; after all, he continued to attend all meetings of both organizations and was responsive in adding flights to markets that could support Empire. Another airline’s service to Utica could jeopardize the future and Quakenbush’s plans for Empire.
Empire was at a crossroads. In an unprecedented move, Quakenbush called a meeting with his pilots and gave them two options. He could either give them a raise or go out and find a bigger aircraft, as the Metroliners were too small for the explosive passenger growth that Empire was now experiencing. The pilots unanimously decided to have Quakenbush buy bigger aircraft. After researching larger turboprops, Quakenbush decided that Empire needed jets. After discussions with jet makers around the world, Quakenbush flew to the Netherlands to sign a purchase agreement for two Fokker F-28-4000 aircraft, configured to carry 80 passengers, with planned delivery dates of both aircraft in 1980.
As 1980 opened, Empire introduced a new bold paint scheme. Stripes of red, orange and yellow ran down the side of the fuselage and up onto the tail. The new paint scheme would also encompass ground equipment, gates, ticket counters, schedules and stationary. In late January, the fifth Metroliner II was delivered to Empire, while three Piper Navajos supplemented the fleet. By late spring, Empire completed a long-term lease agreement with the Oneida County airport to occupy Mohawk Airlines’ former corporate offices and hangar.
On August 1, Quakenbush flew back to the Netherlands to pick-up the first F-28-4000. In the late afternoon of August 3, history repeated itself as Empire’s first F-28 did a fly by over the Utica Airport a little more than 15 years after President Bob Peach had brought home Mohawk’s first BAC One-Eleven. A large celebration was held at the hangar as employees, politicians, and local residents toured the new aircraft.
After completing pilot and flight attendant training and proving runs, the first jet flight took place on September 15, 1980. On December 1, the second F-28-4000 was added to the fleet. Empire started running the F-28s via Syracuse to take advantage of the larger population. By year’s end, Empire joined American Airlines’ Sabre computer system, enabling travel agencies and other airlines to book reservations and ticket passengers on Empire flights.
In the summer of 1981, Empire received a third F-28, which was immediately placed into service to fly to New York City from Syracuse and Rochester, as American Airlines had dropped both markets from New York City. Frequent flyers were starting to take notice of the low fare/full service, and Empire became New York’s favorite airline. The year ended with Empire placing an order for three additional F-28s with planned delivery by mid-1982. Empire was flying high as the stock rose and the year ended with a $517,000 profit.
As the United States entered a recession in 1982 and businesses curtailed travel, Empire’s traffic started dropping off. Empire amended its F-28 order, reducing from three to two the number of planes planned for delivery in 1982. Quakenbush realized what he needed most was a major code share agreement with a major airline to garner feed passenger traffic. After discussions with a few large airlines, Quakenbush announced in November that he had signed a comprehensive marketing and code share agreement with Pan-American World Airways. Called the “Empire-Pan Am Express,” it was the perfect fit for both airlines. Empire was already using Pan Am’s gates at New York’s Kennedy Worldport terminal. The agreement would allow Empire passengers to connect to Pan Am’s extensive worldwide network, while Pan Am would use Empire to connect passengers to western and central New York from all over the world. The agreement positively affected Empire almost immediately as passenger traffic started climbing.
In 1983, Oneida County Airport started an advertising campaign by offering free parking for customers flying out of Utica; however, Empire saw no additional passengers, as boardings out of Utica remained flat. In June, Empire acquired another F-28 from Fokker who had just received the aircraft back from Altair Airlines who had ceased flying.
In August 1984, Empire added its first two international destinations of Montreal and Ottawa from Syracuse. The F-28 was becoming so popular with passengers, pilots, and flight attendants that Quakenbush bought another four used aircraft from Fokker, as Pan Am dropped daily service between New York Kennedy and Hartford. The year ended with Empire flying 11 F-28s and 5 Metroliner IIs.
As 1985 dawned, Empire was now the second largest regional carrier in the United States, serving 22 cities. Syracuse was the largest city in the Empire system with 75 daily flights, while Utica had shrunk to four non-stop flights with the other eight via Syracuse.
With Syracuse as the dominant hub, Quakenbush decided that it made economic sense to move the corporate offices and maintenance base from Utica to Syracuse. After many negotiations between local officials and Empire, the city of Syracuse agreed to lease land to Empire for only $2 per year. In return, Empire agreed to build a new corporate office and hangar capable of handling heavy “D” checks on the fleet of F-28s.
On July 11, Quakenbush hosted a press conference in Syracuse to make the formal announcement to employees and the public. Quakenbush had earlier held informal meetings with employees to explain why the move may be necessary. Although the distance between the two cities was 50 miles, and many of his employees had families and homes in Utica, they stood by his decision to help Empire grow and prosper. Utica airport and local officials, on the other hand, were angered by Empire’s announcement. City leaders approached Quakenbush and made a counter offer to have Empire keep everything in Utica. Even though Quakenbush had already made up his mind, he was still obligated to take the offer to the Board of Directors. With support of the Board, Quakenbush firmly told the Utica officials that Empire’s agreement with Syracuse would stand. In September, Quakenbush announced plans to phase out the Metroliners by December, while continuing to acquire additional new and used F-28s.
Empire’s stock started spiking upward as rumors floated around that several “major” airlines were courting Empire as a merger partner. One month later, Piedmont Airlines offered to buy Empire for $40 million. With no route duplication between the two carriers and Piedmont’s desire to pick up a significant amount of Northeast routes, it was the perfect marriage for the two companies. In addition, Piedmont, like Empire, was aggressively buying Fokker F-28-1000s and F-28-4000s aircraft from all over the world. Syracuse officials immediately asked the Department of Transportation to delay approval of the merger, until Piedmont decided if it would honor Empire’s planned corporate move to Syracuse. After numerous discussions and negotiations involving all parties, Piedmont decided that the maintenance base and reservation center would remain in Utica following an extensive remodel, while Syracuse would remain a Piedmont hub city, with plans for further expansion. With the agreement in hand, Syracuse withdrew its objection, removing the only obstacle to the merger.
In January 1986, Empire shareholders overwhelmingly voted in favor of the merger. Piedmont in turn promised that no Empire employee would be laid off because of the merger between the two companies, including Quakenbush, who was offered a vice president position at Piedmont. Quakenbush instead negotiated an agreement with Piedmont that he had exclusive rights to the Empire name. With the details worked out, Quakenbush left the airline he worked hard to build, and purchased a boat line near Thousand Oaks, New York.
On May 1, 1986, Empire Airlines became Piedmont, less than three years before Piedmont would become part of US Air.
In 1991, US Air closed the F-28 domicile in Utica. Tragically, Paul Quakenbush – who, like Mohawk’s Bob Peach, was regarded as a visionary – died in an automobile accident that same year. Empire’s F-28s would continue to fly for US Air until 1997, the same year as the Utica reservation center was closed down. However, 20 years later, the “Empire Spirit” continues to live in many US Airways employees.
The Empire Airlines Fleet:
Piper Aztec 1 -- 1975-1976
Piper Navajo 3 -- 1975-1979
Swearingen Metroliner II 6 -- 1977-1985
Fokker F-28-4000 13 -- 1980-1986
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