In a life and career consisting almost entirely of cameras and microphones, one of the most unusual bullet points in Bill's life is that, for a few years, he was president of an airline. Even more unusual, he held that job while continuing to serve as host and panelist on multiple TV and radio programs. This is the brief tale of Appointment Airlines.
Bill's fascination with flying began when he was a teenager, taking flying lessons over a cow pasture airfield just outside of Pittsburgh. In 1949, Bill got an itch to buy his own airplane, an Avion model. He could afford the plane itself, but he was scared off from the purchase when he learned what regular maintenance would cost. Despite Bill's successful career in broadcasting, his finances were tenuous.
As he explained in an early newspaper profile, celebrity comes with expenses like a publicist, an agent, gifts for staffers and representatives of sponsors, etc., and he was spending around 90% of his income as a result. He took on a financial manager, Vincent Andrews, who specialized in overseeing the bank accounts for broadcasters (his other clients included The Name's the Same panelist Bill Stern and Beat the Clock host Bud Collyer). In a 1951 article, Andrews boasted that he specialized in telling his clients "no" for their own good, no matter how angry they became.
Even Andrews acknowledged it was a surprise, then, when, in 1950, he gave Bill his blessing to sink some of his hard-earned bucks into a fledgling airline that had only two airplanes. Bill's investment was to be used to boost the fleet up to six planes. Bill's investment was significant enough that he was dubbed president of the company. For Bill personally, it would satisfy that itch for him to own an airplane. One of the planes, he intended to keep for his own use, but those maintenance fees that scared him away previously would now be business expenses.
Appointment Airlines, as the company was dubbed, was an "air taxi," as Bill explained it. The fleet consisted entirely of small private planes used for charter flights. There were essentially two different types of services that it covered.
#1, short trips from one airport to another. If a customer, for example, had booked a flight to Teteboro in New Jersey, but their destination was actually closer to LaGuardia in New York, Appointment Airlines would get them from the destination they settled for to the destination they wanted.
#2, very short business-related trips, in which the Appointment Airlines pilot would fly to a destination and stay there until the client was ready to go. As an example, Bill laid out the itinerary for one corporate executive who had been a recent customer. Appointment Airlines flew him to Pottstown, Pennsylvania for one piece of business, then to Baltimore for the next thing he had to take care of, and then finally Elkins, West Virginia, before returning to New York. The same pilot flew him to each destination, all of the flights were in a single day, and the executive was back in New York City by 7 p.m.
The price for the service was 25 cents per mile, and even if you were only going one way, you had to pay round-trip fare (the plane had to get back to its point of origin, after all).
Appointment Airlines' home base was Staten Island Airport, which Bill rented and operated as part of the business deal. The airline was in peril for its entire existence. Per one report at the time, 1951 proved to be a particularly hazardous year for air travel, and it affected the industry all around, but particularly the young company just trying to get itself--pardon the expression--off the ground.
Eventually it was pared down from six airplanes to four: two that Bill leased, and two Beechcraft Bonanzas that he owned outright. To keep expenses low, Bill employed two pilots who were also trained & experienced mechanics, so they could make their own repairs as needed.
By multiple accounts, Bill, in his limited free time between radio and TV commitments, would step into the cockpit himself. He was fully licensed to operate any commercial aircraft, and by 1952, he had logged 4,000 miles himself as an Appointment Airlines pilot.
Among Bill's adventures in the air: flying a man from New York to Boston to woo his girlfriend during her lunch hour; flying a prospector to a field where they suspected uranium could be mined; and delivering a shipment of ladies; undergarments, a job that Bill cheekily called an "airlift."
When a ship in Norfolk, Virginia needed to make an emergency repair before transporting perishable cargo, but the part that needed replacing was available only in New Jersey, Bill flew to Newark, fetched the part, then flew it to Virginia and passed it off to a tugboat, which relayed it to the ship.
So what went wrong? You can get a sense of the problem from looking at Bill's resume in our Timeline section. During Appointment Airlines' existence, Bill's broadcasting duties included Winner Take All, This is Nora Drake, Quick as a Flash, Hit the Jackpot, Give and Take, Matinee in New York, I've Got a Secret, The Name's the Same, and more. Even a small airline carries full-time responsibilities, and while Bill was certainly there when his customers needed him at the controls, he admitted himself years later that he neglected the actual business end of running the company. Appointment Airlines was a financial failure, and the company was closed for good by 1954. Bill kept one of the planes for himself, though.