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Trump Shuttle's Boston Workers Recall Lavish Start Before 'Things Started To Go Down'05:35
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Gert Cowan is a former head of the flight attendants’ union for the Trump Shuttle in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Gert Cowan is a former head of the flight attendants’ union for the Trump Shuttle in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Donald Trump, the current Republican presidential front-runner, once ran a business with hundreds of Boston-based employees.

In 1989 he bought Eastern Shuttle, which ran hourly flights between Boston, New York and Washington.

And it all began with high hopes from the employees.

Gert Cowan, a flight attendant, was looking forward to working for Trump after working at Eastern Air Lines in the midst of a long strike.

"Back in those days, he was riding high," Cowan said of Trump recently. "He was the golden boy, and we felt that. 'He's going to pull the shuttle up by its bootstraps, and we're going to be successful.' "

After the uncertainty of working at Eastern, Jeff Plourde was also happy working for Trump.

"The Trump Shuttle was a good place to work," Plourde recalled. "It was a good working environment." He worked in fleet services, which meant everything from guiding the plane to its parking area so the jetway could be put on, to baggage handling, to cleaning the aircraft.

Plourde remembers that when Trump launched the shuttle, Trump came down the jetway stairs at Logan Airport to the fleet services lounge.

"He told us, Donald Trump, he was going to keep everything that we had, and he wasn't going to change anything," Plourde recalled. "He was just going to give us what we were making and benefits, and he held up his end of the deal on that."

Donald Trump, second from left, holds a ribbon at Logan International Airport in Boston, as Massport deputy-executive director Patrick Moscaritolo cuts it to officially open the Trump Shuttle airline terminal on June 8, 1989. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Donald Trump, second from left, holds a ribbon at Logan International Airport in Boston, as Massport deputy-executive director Patrick Moscaritolo cuts it to officially open the Trump Shuttle airline terminal on June 8, 1989. (Elise Amendola/AP)

"I remember that day very, very well," WBUR reporter Bruce Gellerman said. "I went to the press conference at Logan Airport. Trump was dressed to the nines. And I remember him standing there saying that the Eastern Shuttle was a diamond in the rough and that he was going to polish it."

Trump refurbished the planes he bought from Eastern.

"We had brand new airplanes, brand new interiors," Cowan remembered.
"Plush carpeting to leather seats and marble in the lavatories and granite."

It wasn't real marble or granite. But Plourde pointed out that it was better-looking than what passengers had been used to. "It was very, very fancy for an airplane, and all the planes looked alike, and the customers loved them," Plourde said. "The customers really loved those shuttle planes."

There were also new accessories for flight attendants.

"They had given us these faux pearls, and earrings," Cowan recalled. "Everybody was just excited. It was an exciting time."

Trump spared no expense on amenities.

"Everything was free," Cowan said. "We did champagne, beer, wine. Everything single flight leg had a meal. It was a cold meal, but sometimes we served chicken or steak. It was just these nice little picnic packs that we gave our passengers."

'Things Started To Go Down'

At first, Cowan says, the flights were full, but over the course of the first year, passengers became scarcer, and the free meals started to seem like an extravagance.

"We started wasting a lot of the food, because the flights weren't full," Cowan recalled. "Things started to go down after a while."

The Trump Shuttle and its competitor, the Pan Am Shuttle, both lost customers.

"The U.S. economy went into a recession," said Bruce Nobles, president of the Trump Shuttle at the time. "Officially, the recession began in the second quarter of 1990, but I'm convinced the recession actually started in the Northeast in the fourth quarter of 1989, because in November of 1989, we saw a reduction in total shuttle traffic for the first time ever."

The flight attendants' union had asked Cowan to represent the Boston flight attendants in labor negotiations with Trump representatives.

"Sitting across from some of his lawyers and stuff, it was pretty nerve-wracking and scary," Cowan recalled. "We were women, and they were trying to intimidate us. They were just lawyers sitting across the table trying to break us."

Trump started to use the shuttle jets for charter flights on weekends. Cowan remembers spending nights in Atlantic City.

"I think people felt that because it was Trump, this billionaire, we would be staying at his properties," Cowan said. "We didn't stay on the boardwalk. We didn't stay at any of the Trump properties. We stayed at a hotel that, personally, I probably wouldn't stay at on my own if I was paying for it."

And by 1991, Cowan was no longer serving steak on the shuttle.

"By that point on the Trump Shuttle, we were serving little biscuits," she recalled. "It went from this great grandioso food to barely giving people a little snack."

That year, the banks that had lent Trump the money to buy the shuttle took it from him in exchange for relieving him of most of the loans.

The next year, USAir took over the shuttle.

This segment aired on April 4, 2016.

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Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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