The Last Flight Plan

Aviation pioneer Jean Rich succeeded because she was smart and tough. But when she died, her family and her airline went into a tailspin.

Audaciousness aside, Rich had bought into an industry ruthlessly unforgiving in its demands. Profits depended on the purchase or lease of older airplanes subject to accelerating repair costs. Scheduling was a nightmare. Planes flew and money was made only if charters were promoted and sold. Winters were always slow. Federal regulators seemed to exist only to create logjams.

Despite its troubles, the airline developed an impressive list of cargo clients -- including recluse Howard Hughes and famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. By the early Eighties it had nine planes and had expanded into charter passenger service. Still, its financial trajectory had reached too few highs and too many lows. Shortly after deregulation opened the airline industry to competition, the price of certain cargo planes dropped dramatically, which allowed many of Rich's customers to buy their own planes and ship their own cargo. The market for charter services declined precipitously.

In 1983 the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, listing debts of nearly four million dollars. Jean Rich turned to George Batchelor for help, and he loaned her one million dollars on the condition that it be repaid, with interest, in five years. If she failed, he would assume control of the airline. Rich agreed to pay back every creditor in full, and emerged from Chapter 11 within one year, though it would take several more years to compensate all creditors. Mischievously, her daughter recalls, Rich waited until the absolute last minute to produce the cashier's check to Batchelor. "She hand-delivered it to his office," Harrington says. "She said, 'No f-ing way is George Batchelor getting his hands on my planes.'"

Initially Jean Rich confronted ovarian cancer with the same assertiveness she brought to her work. She called her family together after the disease was diagnosed in August 1991 and told them that doctors had found "a little tumor." Physicians soon removed two tumors during a hysterectomy, but her condition didn't improve. More surgery was planned, and in anticipation of that, she prepared a new will with the help of husband Bill Meenan.

After opening her up a second time, surgeons discovered that her body was riddled with cancer. Though death was imminent, family members withheld the grim news.

Jean Rich died December 20, 1991, at South Miami Hospital, cradled in her daughter's arms. She was 54 years old. Of the family she left, only one child, David, worked at her airline. Linda's only job at the time was caring for her mother. Youngest sons Stephen and Michael worked outside the aviation industry.

Her mother's death had a profound effect on Linda, who, as the eldest child, took it upon herself to assume the role of family leader and protector, a role that only intensified a long-simmering rivalry between her and her brother David. (All three brothers declined to comment for this story.) Further complicating matters, Linda's relationship with her stepfather, Bill Meenan, soon deteriorated.

At the time of her death, Jean Rich's airline owned two DC-8 long-range passenger aircraft and leased other planes, at least one of them from George Batchelor's International Air Leases, Inc. The company had $2.7 million in cash on hand and expected to end the year with $810,000 in profit, according to financial reports and audits by the accounting firm Morten Beyer & Associates. But it also had $2.9 million in long-term debt.

Because of the airline's debts and its erratic past, accountants found little cause for optimism. The company had no stable base of business and faced overwhelming competition from the big carriers. Even major charter airlines had a tough time surviving. "It is fair to say that no established conventional major or regional airline could endure the vicissitudes of fortune that are daily fare at Rich," reads the accountants' report. The company managed to overcome obstacles and expand only because its manager, Jean Rich, was able to respond flexibly and effectively, the report notes, adding that the joint venture with Batchelor was responsible for helping Rich make a profit the year of her death.

On January 13, 1992 -- the late Jean Rich's birthday -- Bill Meenan called a meeting of the family at the offices of Harry K. Bender, his dead wife's personal attorney, for a formal reading of her last will and testament. All four children attended. When they arrived, Linda Harrington recalls, Bill Meenan and the airline's regulatory attorney, Gary Garofalo, were conversing in a conference room. That seemed wrong to Harrington. Why was Garofalo present at the reading of the will?

All assembled around a long table, Garofalo at the head, Linda and two of her three brothers sitting at angles at the other end. For the children, the memory of their mother's last birthday and their first Christmas without her lingered.

Bill Meenan got his 40-percent share in Rich International, the household furniture, the Mercedes Benz, the Jeep Wagoneer, and the Bertram yacht. The children were to receive jewelry and 60 percent of the company. Meenan, named in the will as executor of the estate, was to sell the real property -- a million-dollar home in Gables Estates, a Key Biscayne condominium, and a house in Islamorada -- the proceeds from which were to be put into trust for the four children and one grandchild. Meenan would get an additional $500,000.

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