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FRANK LORENZO CAN DESTROY AN AIRLINE, BUT HE CAN'T TOUCH THE GOOD MEMORIES

THE GENIUS has done it again. Frank Lorenzo, collector and killer of airlines, has put another company in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Yes, Lorenzo sold most of his Continental Airlines holdings four months ago, but that was just another example of his business brilliance. To put it another way, the rat studied the debt-ridden mess he had created and deserted a sinking ship.

At the time he unloaded his stock, he said he was stepping down as Continental's chairman because his image had become a liability to the company. Among other things, the man who also scuttled Eastern Airlines has a knack for understatement. Bluebeard had a better image.

This is the second time around for Continental. Lorenzo acquired the airline in 1981. Two year later, he blamed the company's problems on excessive labor costs and filed for bankruptcy. All workers were laid off. Three days later Continental was back in business, his payroll was considerably lighter, and he was hailed as one of the great union-busting champions of the Reagan era.

Continental and the original base of his transportation empire, Texas Air, were doing so well that Lorenzo looked for new employees to ravage. He turned his attention to Eastern and in 1986 "bought" the long-ailing organization for about 49 cents in cash and three tons of IOUs.

Lorenzo and machinists union president Charles Bryan were a match made on the far side of the river Styx. The Genius insisted that union members were overpaid, featherbedding parasites. Bryan insisted that Lorenzo was a corporate thug with no conscience, as well as an egg-sucking dog who barked at the moon.

When he wasn't poor-mouthing the unions, Lorenzo kept busy "selling" Eastern's most profitable assets to Texas Air, a k a himself.

For a $100 million, pay-you-later (heh-heh) note, he sold-bought a computerized reservations system worth much more. For $265 million he tried to sell Eastern's lucrative New York shuttle to Texas Air, too. A judge decided the Genius was being much too generous with himself and squelched that one. So Lorenzo was forced to accept a $365 million offer from Donald Trump for the shuttle.

When there was nothing left for Lorenzo to sell to himself for imaginary money, a bankruptcy court judge took control of Eastern away from him and turned the company over to a trustee.

That happened in April, and it was bad news for guess who. Having put Eastern on its deathbed, the Genius devoted the next five months to Continental. The rest is bankruptcy history.

The corporate elephant-keepers left to clean up after Lorenzo say the airline is in good shape for the shape it's in.

Hollis Harris, chairman and chief executive shoveler for Continental, said he was "confident there will be no need for layoffs, pay cuts or reductions in benefits."

If true, that is a sure sign that Lorenzo is gone. Then again, after the 1983 bankruptcy, there can't be much left to cut.

I am taking this latest Chapter 11 episode personally. I flew on Continental only once, but it was the finest airplane ride of my life.

This was way back before anybody ever heard of Frank Lorenzo. Robert Six owned it then, and he had built a reputation for pampering his customers. The flight was from Buffalo to San Diego by way of Chicago. For a reason I don't recall, Continental upgraded me to first class when I boarded in Chicago.

For quite some time, a pretty stewardess forced fancy hors d'oeuvres and champagne down my throat. When we arrived in San Diego I was ready to seek out bad journalistic companions and do the town. Unfortunately, due to the time difference, it was 11 a.m. Potential running mates were working. Worse yet, they were sober.

Not even Lorenzo, that egg sucker, can steal those memories.

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