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BEAUVAIS' BUMPY RIDE

I wanted to make sure I'd get a seat at the America West Airlines stockholders meeting. For this reason, I drove down I-10 to the Pointe at South Mountain an hour early the other day.

The parking lots were already filled. A crowd that would total more than 1,000 moved slowly into the huge room where the meeting was to be held.

Some people claim to admire the Pointe's architecture. Not one of these savants, however, has ever been able to explain his appreciation to me in a way that makes sense.

Personally, I consider the Pointe to be among the most tasteless of these institutions now in existence.

How does anyone ever find his way around? It's too spread out. The rooms are gloomy. Rustler's Rooste is a trashy caricature. The oversize fountain in front of the main building is both ostentatious and garish. Enough said.

As I walked into the meeting room, a man was passing out fliers protesting the oversize salaries that America West chairman Ed Beauvais and president Mike Conway were still paying themselves despite the airline's catastrophic financial losses.

Since owning stock is a condition of employment at America West, there was a tremendous employee turnout.

By the time president Conway stepped to the microphone, the standing-room-only crowd was estimated at better than 1,200. The place was actually packed to the doors.

Conway wasted no time. He hit them right between the eyes.
"In the last nine months, we've lost $130 million," he said.
Everyone has known about the horrendous figures for a long time. They have had people in financial circles whispering for months.

For example, they prompted this report in Financial World this past March: "Is Phoenix-based America West Airlines about to file for bankruptcy?"

There's more. Every business magazine following the airline industry expects the failure of America West.

Another example:
"They're flying into oblivion," an analyst at a big New York bank told a reporter from Business Week. "It's only a matter of time."

The War in the Gulf, rocketing oil prices and the recession are three factors blamed for America West's losses.

Conway obviously knew about the fliers being handed out about the high salaries of the executives. It was important to talk about that immediately.

He made no apology for the money he and Beauvais were drawing.
"We're not embarrassed by the compensation awarded to us by the compensation committee," he said defiantly.

With bonuses, Beauvais' salary was close to $1 million this year and Conway's was listed at $432,000.

I had never before heard of something called a "compensation committee." As Conway spoke, I wondered if the compensation committee were allowed by Beauvais and Conway to consider the fact that America West's nonunion employees are the lowest paid in the airline industry?

Why do I always ask myself these questions when I already know the answers?

Conway was bullish on America West's future. But his strategy for success provided no encouragement to workers facing the possibility of furloughs.

"We will go as deep [with cuts] as necessary and do whatever is necessary to get this company back to where it needs to be," Conway told them.

Later, Beauvais took to the microphone.
"We're going to survive," he promised. "It may be painful, but we know what to do."

I had the eerie feeling as Beauvais spoke that his words might hold a double meaning. After all, no matter what happens to America West, Beauvais will fall to earth in a golden parachute with millions.

That's the beauty of capitalism, I suppose.
But stewardesses and workers who toss baggage and sell tickets will not fare quite so handsomely. This is why the chairman of the board is always able to show up in a new suit and smile confidently for the television cameras.

Because of Beauvais, America West has always been a mystifying operation to me. From the very beginning, there has been the question of whether Beauvais' overambition would sink the operation.

He is the ultimate high-wire artist.
"Some day I'd like to fly to the moon with a picnic lunch," Beauvais once said. "That would be the ultimate experience."

Beauvais once told an interviewer how much he admired Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle.

He cited one of his favorites quotes from Caen: "It's not only important that I succeed; it's also important that all my friends fail at the same thing."

Admittedly, the startup of America West and its rapid expansion have been a remarkable thing to watch.

But during the buildup, a series of uncommon events have taken place. They are enough to give one pause.

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Tom Fitzpatrick