Commentary: Remember better days at ATA

Keywords Real Estate

On ATA, you’re on vacation.

That catchy tag line from the past has taken on new meaning to the 600 or so Indianapolis employees who were abruptly and unceremoniously terminated April 3 when the airline shut down for good.

The singsong melody that accompanied those words in ATA’s marketing is now a dissonant tune for them and the thousands of ticketed passengers who were left stranded.

The airline whose name and jingle once evoked images of fun in the sun, swaying palm trees and blue skies has crash-landed.

Too bad for a company that had such a loyal following and was loved almost universally as the hometown, home-grown airline. It had generated much good will among people it regularly swept off to tropical vacations or to their winter homes in Florida.

ATA founder George Mikelsons used to joke that he and his company were responsible for fueling the real estate boom in southern Florida, from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale and Naples, because of shuttling so many snowbirds there.

I’ve lost track of how many times I flew into Fort Myers on ATA before it pulled out of the Indy airport for good in January 2006. I honestly can’t recall a single flight where I didn’t run into at least one person I knew coming or going.

It’s a sorry final chapter to a story that was so compelling.

Founded in 1973 with one airplane by Latvia native George Mikelsons as Ambassadair Travel Club, ATA grew to become the largest charter airline in North America by the mid-1990s, with more than 45 aircraft and 400 destinations.

Scheduled service initially to Florida, Mexico and Las Vegas put it in the big leagues and cemented its reputation as a carrier synonymous with good weather and good times.

Even after the company had a public stock offering, George Mikelsons retained his status as the iconic leader of American TransAir. That had something to do with the 70-percent ownership he retained after the IPO, but more to do with the fact that he was ATA.

I always liked Mikelsons. He was the accidental entrepreneur who made good against all odds. Smart, witty and unassuming, he seemed to love what he was doing and never took himself too seriously.

He was a good corporate citizen who turned down numerous offers to move his company elsewhere and who paid himself reasonable compensation in an era when CEO pay skyrocketed.

What he accomplished in the airline industry before the turn of the century was no small feat. He was the little guy with the nimble company that carved out its own profitable niche in a world of behemoths.

ATA had its ups and downs, as it flew against the big boys. He confronted the same challenges as other carriers-intense capital pressure, high interest rates and fuel costs, industry deregulation and threats of terrorism as far back as the late 1980s-but he did so with a much smaller war chest.

You couldn’t help but admire Mikelsons’ pluck and what he accomplished with his stamina, persistence and will to succeed. And many people did. He was IBJ’s Enterprise Award winner in 1990 and was named Master Entrepreneur for the Midwest Region by the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in 2002.

In retrospect, 9/11 was the beginning of the end. The aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the strain of too much debt on new airplanes, and the ever-rising cost of fuel were just too much for ATA.

As I think of Mikelsons and his airline, I’m going to choose to remember the good times. Any of us who can should try to help find gainful employment for all those loyal ATA employees who are now grounded. It’s probably pretty hard for them to think of anything good about ATA right now.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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