The writer of a major TIME story rarely works in the field, relying instead on the magazine's network of correspondents and reporter-researchers. For this week's story on People Express and the deregulated airline industry, however, Associate Editor Charles Alexander decided to do things differently. "I usually write about abstract things like economic policy," he says. "My previous cover story was on the budget deficit, and I got buried under statistical reports. This one was a change of pace, a consumer-oriented subject. It made sense to take a firsthand look."
That approach included booking his first flight on the airline, an orderly if spartan pre-Thanksgiving round trip between People's headquarters at Newark International Airport and Jacksonville. "Playing a typical customer, I even phoned to make my own reservation, which has been a notoriously difficult part of getting on People Express," says Alexander. "Wonder of wonders, thanks to their new reservation system, I got through on my first try."
After interviewing some fellow passengers, Alexander returned to Newark several times, including the post-Thanksgiving weekend, when hundreds were stranded in the jammed terminal. "I hadn't been in a mob like that since I went to see the Rolling Stones at Boston Garden in 1969," he says. "There weren't enough seats in the place, so in order to get where the people were I did interviews sitting on the floor."
Supplementing his firsthand experience were more extensive reports from New York Correspondent Thomas McCarroll, who also made several flights and talked with People passengers, along with employees and ex-employees, competitors, Wall Street analysts and travel agents. In Bernardsville, N.J., he and Senior Correspondent Frederick Ungeheuer spoke at length with People Express Chairman Donald Burr. "It was an unorthodox, invigorating interview," McCarroll recalls. "It's rare for the chief executive of any company to be so frank. He never avoided a single question."
Both McCarroll and Alexander have mixed feelings about being a People Express customer. "It's an airline not many people like, but they fly it anyway because of the price," says McCarroll. Says Alexander: "It would be O.K. for me and my wife Cathy, but not for our sons, four-year-old Brian and six-month-old Kevin. With those long waits in the terminal, I think they're a little young to be People people."
Richard B. Thomas