THIS NEW YEAR’S EVE I decided to attend a wake instead of a party–an airborne wake at that. Late Thursday night I climbed aboard the final flight of MGM Grand, an airline that has come to occupy a remarkable niche in showbiz lore. The champagne flowed, the passengers sang “Auld Lang Syne,” there were hugs and kisses. It was akin to closing a show, except that we were in fact closing an airline and perhaps a way of life.

Flying MGM Grand during its five-year run, I have watched movie megadeals being closed, eavesdropped as agents skillfully stole clients from rival agencies and listened to some monumental script arguments between directors and writers. “From the first week I’d wander into the cabin and recognize all the Hollywood types, papers spread out on the table, doing their deals,” recalls Jack Wilson, the handsome Central Casting pilot who’s been with the airline since its inception. “I never understood what they were saying, but I could hear the names being dropped, the numbers getting bigger and bigger.”

Most of the 70-plus passengers on the final New Year’s Eve flight shared Wilson’s nostalgia. “On the MGM Grand I’ve chatted with superstars, dined with ambassadors, and I’ve also gotten a hell of a lot of work done on the plane,” observed David Nash, executive vice president of Radio City Music Hall. “It’s the end of an era,” said Dan Armel, a partner in Coopers & Lybrand who’s been flying back forth between L.A. and New York while trying to salvage Carolco. Armel and Nash, along with several other passengers, brought along children and relatives to share the occasion.

Hollywood embraced MGM Grand from the outset because of the privacy afforded by curtained-off compartments as well as the overall ambience. The planes were configured like flying cocktail lounges, and in the early days, passengers could get a haircut or a manicure along with great food, champagne and caviar. Upon arrival, your luggage was always waiting for you inside your limo before you got off the plane.

Hence New Year’s Eve seemed more like a wake because most passengers realized there’d never be another airline like this one. With airline losses mounting into the billions, the skies in the ’90s will inevitably belong to three or four big carriers like American, United and Delta, who will manipulate fares and schedules to ensure their predominance. The small, idiosyncratic carriers will be hard put to compete.

MGM GRAND’S PROBLEMS were exacerbated by marketing ineptitude. Its owner, the inscrutable Kirk Kerkorian, was a numbers genius, but never showed much interest in selling his product. Rather than compete for customers on regularly scheduled flights, Kerkorian will now deploy his three DC-8s and three 727s in the charter business. This will provide continued employment for part of the MGM Grand staff , but some make no bones about their disappointment.

“My next assignment is to spend a month flying around with Guns N’ Roses,” said one stewardess, “and I don’t even get combat pay.” Another stew will work on charters for NBA basketball teams–”pouring drinks for surly seven-footers” is the way she describes it.

Some staffers were teary-eyed. As the creaky DC-8 pulled away from the gate in New York, 20 members of the ground crew shivered in the cold, waving goodbye. Once aloft, Emlyn Thomas, the courtly, Welsh-born pursar, discovered he had the wrong menus and that none of the advertised dishes were available. There were no table linens, and the bathrooms had run out of soap. The crew itself had already worked the morning flight from L.A. to New York and were a bit bleary.

Their difficulties were eased through the efforts of a handful of MGM Grand employees who had volunteered for the final flight. David Stone, a convivial young steward, scrawled the lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne” and distributed them to each passenger. After leading passengers in this final anthem, however, he admitted the demise of MGM Grand had thoroughly depressed him. “I’m not going to slop food around for American or United,” he said. “I’ll try for a job with Club Med. I like to make people happy.”

An attractive stew at his side said she was interviewing for a job on a corporate jet, though mindful that the CEO was a notorious ladies’ man. “It’s work,” she shrugged.

“Look, this company was far from perfect,” said another stew, adjusting her paper hat. “The supervisors never really appreciated the extra effort that all of us put into our jobs. But on what other airline could you serve really good food, pass out chocolate chip cookies just before landing and tell your troubles to Warren Beatty?”

It was nice while it lasted, but companies like MGM Grand weren’t designed to survive the stripped-down, numbers-crunching ’90s. That’s why, as the final Flight 500 shuddered on its descent into LAX, the passengers gathered around the bar and hugged each other, smiling yet sorrowful. Even as they greeted the New Year, they were saying goodbye to a way of life.

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