The first thing you need to know about Bill Biermann is that he never stops. Or at least he doesn’t want to.
We talked with him on a morning when he was stuck at home nursing an injury.
“It’s keeping me off the golf course,” he says, “and I don’t like that at all.”
We spent the next hour talking about his long career as Bill checked off working for a number of airlines that built the industry. Although pioneers like Pan Am and Eastern may be gone, their memories remain. But ever heard of Colonial Airlines or Mackey Air?
“We did everything in those days,” Bill says of the time he was more in charge of airline operations at destination travel spots in Bermuda, The Bahamas and central Florida. “And while it was typical to operate on a contract basis for ground support, I was still interested and involved in ground support, too. I certainly had to oversee it once I became a manager.”
By the end of our call, we realized Bill lived just a short drive away from the company he spent 17 years with before retiring last December. Later that same day, Bill must have driven to Charlatte of America since we received the image on this month’s cover by the following day.
With that attitude, it’s no surprise that this year’s Lifetime Achievement winner has managed to “retire” not once, but twice and earned the chance to retire a third time.
Bill started his career in 1951 as a field agent with Pan American World Airways in his native Bermuda, and eventually joined Eastern Airlines in 1956 where he would stay for the next 33 years.
Since he spent much of his early days more in general airline operations, let’s jump ahead to 1979 when Bill is promoted to corporate GSE manager at Eastern’s home office at Miami International Airport. (For more on the start of Bill’s career, see sidebar “Before GSE.”) Business couldn’t be better for Eastern at the time. The airline, buffeted as all were by deregulation, was coming off four of its most profitable years under the command of former astronaut Frank Borman.
In his new role, Bill immediately got involved in promoting electric GSE.
“This equipment was coming on the scene,” Bill remembers, “and we all knew that we would need some protocol on operating and charging electric GSE.”
With that in mind, Bill joined SAE International and started a committee that developed the trade group’s first standards and recommended practices for e-GSE. Working with battery makers, Bill also helped develop opportunity charging and other electric utilization on the ramp.
The SAE meetings met several times each year, with much of the work reviewed in-depth every five years for major revisions.
During these SAE meetings, Bill also met an executive named Ed Shaffrey who worked for Kersey Manufacturing, an electric mining manufacturer based in Virginia. As it turned out, that friendship would serve both men well in the many years to follow.
By 1980, Eastern operated a major hub at what was then called Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport. As its name implies, Eastern’s original success came from its decision to travel up and down the country’s East Coast rather than fly from coast-to-coast.
That made Atlanta a natural choice for the airline’s growth. To give an idea of just how large Eastern’s Atlanta hub was, consider these figures we dug up from 1990 – the airline’s last full year of business as it limped along through management mishaps and union strife:
- The airline operated around 288 daily departures from Atlanta.
- For the year, Eastern carried almost three-quarters of its 16.5 million passenger base from Atlanta.
- From Atlanta, Eastern served 68 destinations.
For Bill, a major hub meant a lot of GSE. And for Bill’s boss, that meant a lot of expensive gasoline and diesel.
“The edict came from the top” Bill remembers. “Frank Borman ordered us to find alternative fuels. He was ahead of his time as far as ground support equipment goes. It’s not what most airline chiefs are concerned about. But by this point, gas was around $2 a gallon.”