Top Airline Executives Gathering for Secret Meeting This Weekend

The annual spring secret meeting of top airline industry executives — Conquistadores del Cielo — is happening this weekend.

It’s a secret society complete with rituals, and several big deals in the industry have been hatched there — and laws have apparently even been broken.

The first meeting of Conquistadores del Cielo was a weekend at an Arizona ranch in 1937 at the invitation of TWA President Jack Frye and Vice President John Walker.

In 1938 the group was formalized as a non-profit corporation. Members included 91 executives from aviation-related companies including airlines, engine manufacturers, and parts suppliers. The range of group members was expanded with the advent of space travel.

Events at the gatherings included knife throwing, shooting, hunting and petanque. The rules are – or were – that the winners one year have to run the event the next, and players can only win a tournament 3 times.

Apparently this is the club’s drinking song:

We’re Conquistadores, gay Conquistadores
We’re birds of a very fine feather!
We’re happy amigos no matter where he goes
The One, Two and Three goes, we’re always together

The ‘overall good sport’ is (or was) designated ‘Best Wrangler’ and awarded The Big Horse. The 1969 ‘big horse’ was awarded to Roy Wendahl and eventually sold on eBay. Here’s the inscription:

    Conquistadores del Cielo

Conquistadores del Cielo big horse
The Big Horse, credit: Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive

New members who had attended 3 meetings were eligible for initiation into the club, and the initiation ceremony consisted of processions of Conquistadores riding down from the hills with lighted torches. Fireworks ensue.

It is costumed by the workshop which costumes the Royal Spanish Opera in Madrid. Authentic period costumes complete with armor, swords, and full regalia are used.

Much of what we know about Conquistadores del Cielo comes from the group’s papers, 1940-1975, on deposit at Wright State University. We can get a glimpse into current operations from the group’s 2016 tax return.

Most commonly the fall meetings have taken place at the A-Bar-A Ranch in Encampment, Wyoming over Labor Day weekend.

Airline executives claim to avoid business discussions at these meetings. There’s natural concern about anti-trust violations. I first read about the group in the Robert Serling books on the early airline industry, and Thomas Petzinger’s Hard Landing (probably the best book ever written on the airline industry) relays a tale of the heads of United and Pan Am working up the sale of Pan Am’s London routes there.

Excerpt: Hard Landing. I have a hard time imagining Bob Crandall in a tutu.

It was also the source of an insider trading scandal.

[Paul] Thayer…was the first pilot to break the sound barrier in a production US Navy fighter, and survivor of seven crashes, four in combat and three as a test pilot.

..[H]e discussed at Conquistadores 1982 a takeover battle for Bendix Corp which was eventually won by Allied Corp, of which he was a director.

Thayer subsequently became former president Ronald Reagan’s No. 2 man in the Pentagon as deputy defense secretary, but was forced to resign in 1984 in advance of a threatened prosecution for insider trading.

In 1985 he began serving 19 months of a four-year sentence negotiated through plea bargaining.

According to the documents, two Conquistadores who attended the 1982 meeting and were members of companies who unsuccessfully tried to buy Bendix were prepared to testify to the insider information given by Thayer.

An American-US Airways merger seemed inevitable when former American CEO Tom Horton told Scott Mayerowitz that the merger was really his idea originally — pitched at Conquistadores del Cielo.

“I said to Doug, standing by the river, I think there could be the potential for value creation in a combination,” Horton recalled. “I made that pitch. We nodded heads to one another.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This explains it!

    While the service is gone down the toilet, fees are added and skyrocketing – it sounds to me like collusion and price fixing to screw the traveling public.

  2. I guess the drinking song breaks out after excessive drinking, and with inhibitions thrown to the wind things get a bit gay, as per the song.

  3. Alas, suspecting untoward things (e.g., price/product fixing, degradations, insider trading, etc.) as having taken place at these secret society gatherings, and proving untoward things took place, are entirely different things…

    But we’ll sure know whatever the next “passenger pleasing” degradations agreed upon by everyone this weekend are in the coming weeks and months whenever one of the Oligopolists announces the newest “margin expanding initiatives” (to better screw passengers) using Orwellian doublespeak language where the latest full on crap is presented as if they’re the Hope Diamond about to be found as soon as we open the elegant “Tiffany Box” claiming its an amazing “improvement” when, of course, it’s the exact opposite…

    …and then the rest of oligopolists/triopolists all roll out their versions of the same crap that oh so conveniently feature “just different enough tweaks” that their well paid army of lawyers tells them is enough to keep the dirty deeds a hairsbreadth beyond the reach of becoming legally actionable proof they’re engaged in the price/product fixing that the strikingly similar product degradations, fare restrictions/fences, and other penalties/punishments that has otherwise resulted in an uncanny resemblance of everything and everyone one progressively moving together in the same downward product direction that flyers know as the industry’s “Race to the Bottom”.

  4. “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” — Adam Smith, “The Wealth of Nations” (1776)

  5. My guess is that none of them fly in the back of a new AA 737 to get to the event regardless of the location.

  6. As a teenager I worked at the A-BAR-A Ranch 4 years in a row beginning in 1951. A highlight at the end of the season was the Conquestadore del cielo
    meeting. How exciting! Bob Six and his Sixcats, an evening with a parade down the mountain with men on horses wearing flamboyant western wear!
    It was great excuse for getting out of the first week of school at Laramie High.School! “Conquestadores don’t spit on the floores, use the cuspidores.. … !” A beautiful ranch with the North Platte river running through i.tb

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