Robert Crandall was a titan of the airline industry in the rollicking days of deregulation, and at 79, his heart still pumps jet fuel.
Today, though, he’s got another transportation project in his crosshairs — All Aboard Florida’s $2.9 billion express passenger rail.
Crandall, a winter resident of Palm City, is on the steering committee of the anti-All Aboard Florida group Citizens Against Rail Expansion. When he joined the opposition, it bolstered the ragtag effort of grassroots organizers who were taking on All Aboard Florida.
“Let’s just say he has the attention of All Aboard Florida,” said Bill Ward, chairman of Citizens Against Rail Expansion, about Crandall. “He carries a lot of weight and authority. He knows what it takes to put people in seats and turn a profit and he just doesn’t get All Aboard Florida’s business plan.”
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Crandall’s rule at American Airlines from 1980 to 1998 is the stuff of legend, a tough-talking innovator whose profanity-laced speeches became happy hour lore. One of his nicknames at the airline — Fang.
Described as intensely detail-focused, pushy, creative, ambitious and notoriously temperamental, Crandall helped grow American from a small domestic airline to the largest carrier in the world. Along the way, he was named one of the nation’s toughest bosses by Fortune magazine.
“Bob is a formidable opponent,” said Rob Britton, who worked with Crandall as American’s managing director of communications in the 1990s. “His opposition [to All Aboard Florida] is surely principled, and based on a clear and unromantic analysis of costs and benefits.”
Coral Gables-based All Aboard Florida plans to run 32 trains per day on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks from Miami to Orlando, with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. With the train traveling at speeds between 79 mph and 125 mph, the trip is expected to take about three hours.
All Aboard Florida’s parent company, New York private-equity fund Fortress Investment Group, has ambitious plans. During earnings calls, Fortress has said that the train itself isn’t the only moneymaker in the venture. Real estate development on land it owns around its three stations will add to profits. Miami’s station alone is a $150 million complex that will include offices, shopping and residential space.
Still, when asked what the chances are that All Aboard Florida will begin running its trains in 2017 as planned, Crandall didn’t hesitate with an answer.
“Zero,” he said flatly during an interview last month with The Palm Beach Post. “We are going to beat them.”
Crandall came late to the fight against All Aboard Florida, which was officially announced in 2012. And, to a degree, it’s personal.
His home in Piper’s Landing Yacht & Country Club is five miles west of the tracks, but he enjoys nearby Stuart’s quaint waterfront downtown where trains cut nearly clean through the neighborhood. As a donor and supporter of Martin Health System, he’s also concerned about delays to first-responders if 32 trains are added to the tracks.
In October, Crandall went to a U.S. Department of Transportation meeting in Stuart for people who wanted to learn more about a draft environmental impact report that looked at the effects the trains would have on Intracoastal drawbridges, towns and traffic.
That’s where he got “cross,” he said.
As an American Airlines executive, he has been on the other side of an environmental impact statement. When an airport wanted to add a runway and neighborhoods complained, he’d have to help explain the benefits and negatives and speak with homeowners whose properties would be under the flightpath.
All Aboard Florida officials have been to hundreds of city commission and neighborhood meetings to plead their case, but Crandall didn’t like what he saw that night in October.
“It seemed to me the meeting was a very organized way of depriving the public of information,” Crandall said. “You could hardly move and there was no coherently-presented information.”
So Crandall held a fundraiser at Stuart’s Lyric Theatre. The haul was about $100,000. He has subsequently helped bring in $1.1 million for Citizens Against Rail Expansion, or CARE.
“If this were the old West, we’d round up a posse and go get the bastard,” Crandall said. “Now we raise money and file lawsuits.”
Crandall’s tenure at American coincided with a rough-and-tumble time in the industry. Deregulation, competition from upstart discount airlines and union battles over contracts tested the fortitude of executives at legacy airlines.
Rob Britton, a principal with the airline consulting and education firm AirLearn, said American’s union leaders and rank-and-file employees sometimes disagreed with Crandall but always respected him.
“Underpinning his leadership was a solid and strong moral compass,” Britton said.
Crandall is credited with inventing frequent-flyer programs, computerized reservation systems, and novel money-savings techniques. He once trimmed $40,000 from fuel costs by removing one olive from onboard salads, according to author Dan Reed’s 1993 book The American Eagle, the Ascent of Bob Crandall and American Airlines.
Ward said just having Crandall on the CARE steering committee adds credence to the fight. He has spoken to community associations, met with people in their living rooms, and helped get Stuart business leaders to conspicuously place CARE brochures in their shops.
Crandall didn’t join CARE’s steering committee on a whim. Ward said Crandall’s first call was directly to Steve Ryan, CARE’s high-powered Washington, D.C., attorney.
“He’s at that kind of level,” said Ward, noting that Crandall also reviewed CARE’s governing documents and organizational structure. “CEO types just get up and call the guy at the top.”
Keeping in character, they also don’t shy from fights. Crandall said he has faced off with executives such as All Aboard Florida President Michael Reininger before.
“Fact of the matter is, we’re tough guys with deep pockets, and he’s a tough guy with deep pockets, and we’ll see how it works out,” Crandall said. “Hopefully the law will get enforced, and we think if the law is enforced, All Aboard Florida won’t happen.”