Posted by: Korry | March 6, 2012

The Tale of Mr. Varney’s Two Airlines

The sale of Varney Air Lines in 1930 was bittersweet for Walter Varney. The former World War I pilot had started the company only four years earlier when the US government opened up new air mail routes for bid. Varney had bid on an obscure air mail route of Pasco, Washington to Elko, Nevada, and since he was the only bidder he won the contract. (That’s my type of auction!!) After expanding the company quite a bit, Varney Air Lines was now merging with four other carriers and Varney found himself out of the airline business.

So what’s an “unemployed” aviation pioneer supposed to do next? Start another airline! This time, his company would take flight in July of 1934 as Varney Speed Lines and operate between El Paso, Texas and Pueblo, Colorado. Two years later in 1936 the company was sold to a larger-than-life businessman and pilot named Robert Six. Varney was again out of the airline business, this time for good.

End of the story, right? Actually, that’s just the beginning.

You see, Varney Air Lines had been consolidated into a company named United Aircraft and Transport, which later adopted the name United Air Lines. And Varney Speed Lines? Well, Bob Six decided to make two big changes to the company: he moved its headquarters to Denver, and he changed its name to Continental Airlines.

As you probably are aware, United and Continental officially merged in October of 2010 although the two companies continued to operate independently…that is until this past Saturday when in the middle of the night the two companies consolidated their massive reservations systems. A few minutes after noon on March 3, the very last Continental Airlines flight parked at the gate in Houston and shut down its engines–and with them the airline’s operation–after arriving from Tokyo.

The two airlines were now one. I can’t help but wonder what Walter Varney must be thinking now that his two “sons” that each went their own way for a while are now back together…forever. I personally bet Varney is thrilled. His two little companies started by hauling mail over some of the most remote American countryside. Now, his two companies have grown into the world’s largest airline.

How well-timed is it that I’m now reading Hannibal and Me by Andreas Kluth? I stumbled across the author’s blog a few days ago and was quickly captivated by the premise of the book which is that although we often judge a person’s success or failure based on what they do or do not accomplish, the real measure of a man is how he responds to that success or failure. Does it serve as a jumping off point and a motivator for future successes? Or does it consume the person and limit passion and creativity for the rest of their life. 

Kluth wraps the book around the story of Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general who surprised the Roman army by bringing thousands of soldiers and even elephants across the Alps. We remember Hannibal’s great successes against the Roman army on the battlefield; however, we don’t often consider that he never actually achieved his main objective: the end of the Roman empire. Kluth weaves modern-day examples of people like Tiger Woods, Steve Jobs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman and many others into his book, all the while leaving the reader with one over-arching question about their own life: now what?

It’s the same question Varney asked when he left the army and decided to start his first airline. He asked it again after he sold that company. And now the new United is asking that same question once again: now what?

Each story’s ending is another story’s beginning. What will yours be?

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