Observation Deck

Airline History's Loss

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It may surprise some readers to learn that at least one airline had, until recently, a person with the title Corporate Historian on its staff.  And given the focus on its company's culture, on a holistic basis, it may not surprise you to learn that the carrier is Southwest.  The individual was Brian Lusk, who, after  18-plus years at Delta, in a variety of operational functions, came to Southwest in 1995.  After stints in reservations and communications, he participated in Southwest's social media activities, including the popular "Flashback Fridays" blog, which focused on airline history, principally, although not entirely, Southwest's.  Unfortunately, late in March, Brian passed away, suddenly. 

History could be considered as the Rodney Dangerfield (the comedian who's signature line was "I don't get no respect") function at a number of airlines.  While a number of carriers do make use of acknowledging the past (American and Delta sponsor museums honoring their heritage; several carriers, including Alaska, American, Southwest, US Airways and United, as well as airlines outside the U.S.,  proudly fly current aircraft in historic liveries),  history is often treated as a stepchild, if not ignored outright, and at the first sign of financial stress, is eliminated as a function.  One former CEO apparently even suggested that the company archives be auctioned on Ebay.

From a business culture standpoint, this is sad.  Airlines are, after all, service businesses with huge numbers of customers.  History, often proud and colorful, can be an effective tool to motivate a large, dispersed staff that often operates under stressful conditions.  Southwest (they of the thirty-plus years of profitability) recognizes, and makes good use of this.  A visit to their headquarters in Dallas provides palpable evidence of a company culture rooted in its history; not just airplanes and operations, but people and what they did, and how that led to where the company is now.  Not just naming a conference room for the famous story of why Southwest had to resort to ten minute gate turns in its schedule, after needing to sell an aircraft in the early days, but telling the story visibly in the room, including what it meant and why it mattered. 

Brian, of course, was a master storyteller.  Like many other airline enthusiasts, he also was interested in transportation in a broader sense.  In his case, the other focus was railroads.  In his company bio, he mentioned that he was born "just a couple of blocks from the Santa Fe Railway's main transcontinental line in Clovis, New Mexico to an airline father, so transportation (planes and trains) got in my blood at an early age."  This multi-modal interest continued throughout his life; last year's vacation featured a trip across Canada on VIA Rail's "Canadian" streamliner.

Fortunately, Brian does leave a legacy beyond his blog posts, and the many items of memorabilia that he collected and displayed, including in his office.  In the weeks before his passing, he was working on putting together what became known as the Aviation Archivist Summit, to provide a forum where airline archivists and historians from both industry (airlines and manufacturers) and aviation museums with an airline/commercial aviation focus could get together and address items of mutual interest, and develop a support group among  themselves.   Southwest had agreed to host this group at the airline's headquarters, and graciously kept the commitment even in Brian's absence.

This, at the least, is a significant part of his legacy.  He was committed to airline and transportation history, and happened to be in a unique position to advance its cause.  Brian Lusk didn't just study airline history; he lived it large, Texas-style.  Those who knew him have already benefitted from his passion for the subject, and as a result of his efforts to form a community of kindred spirits, even those that will never have the opportunity to meet him in person will be able to benefit from his love of airline history, in particular.

Let's let Brian sum it up, again, from his bio:  "Then in 2011, I got my dream job as Southwest's Corporate Historian.  I enjoy sharing and preserving Southwest's past with our Employees and the public at large."  Your friends can only wish that you were here to guide and continue the process; thanks from all of us.

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