Eli Timoner, who founded Air Florida, turning a regional airline into an overnight international sensation, died Wednesday at the age of 92 after a long illness.
In the cut-throat era of airline deregulation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Timoner stood out for his commitment to his employees and blue-collar approach to leading an airline.
“My dad was an ego-less leader,” said David Timoner, Eli’s son. “He would help turn planes (over) if they were delayed with the cleaning crew, or work at the ticket counter. He was not too proud to get dirty and pull on the oar with the rest of the team.”
Timoner grew up on Long Island and spent one year at the University of Illinois before doctors suggested he would do better in more temperate climates as a result of a medical condition, so he transferred to the University of Miami.
He used proceeds from a candy store he had bought and sold with the help of his then-father-in-law to take over a failing roofing company in South Florida. He went on to turn Giffen Industries into a conglomerate worth millions of dollars. According to David Timoner, Eli also integrated Giffen’s Black and white unions. That made Giffen one of the first to have a non-segregated workforce in the South.
“He always did have a sense of justice,” David Timoner said. “And all three of his kids have it — it’s something that permeated down to us.”
It was while leading Giffen that Eli Timoner got the idea to start an airline, as his frustration mounted over the inability to reach the rest of Florida in a timely manner. Founded in 1972, Air Florida began its life as one of many other intra-state airlines springing up at the time.
But as market forces began to kick in with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, East Coast routes became more lucrative, and Air Florida found itself competing with established giants like Eastern Airlines and World Airways. It ended up beating out both for America’s second Miami-to-London route, a high-water mark in the company’s history.
“Eastern had a memo that called us the ‘gnat down the street,’ and we got them,” said Karen Averill, a former Air Florida official. “We were very young, and very excited, and it felt like there was nothing we couldn’t do — and nothing we wouldn’t do for (Timoner).”
To this day, hundreds of former Air Florida employees gather in person and online to share memories and updates about their lives.
Yet almost in an instant, Air Florida’s fortunes changed. On the afternoon of Jan. 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., and into the Potomac River, killing 78. Weeks later, Timoner, 53, suffered a stroke that left him unable to walk without the use of a cane. The airline struggled to regain its footing and was ultimately forced to file for bankruptcy in 1984.
Yet Timoner never lost his composure, associates say. As the Miami Herald wrote in the aftermath of the stroke, “The experience, quite obviously, has changed his life. But, Timoner says, it is not entirely for the worse. After devoting the major portion of his life and energy to business, Timoner is working on a new balance.”
In the ensuing years, Timoner dedicated himself to various civic causes, including serving for 25 years on the Board of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, 20 years on the Board of Miami’s Center for the Fine Arts, and 12 years on the Board of Ransom Everglades School.
In 2005, Eli and his wife moved to Southern California to be near their children and grandchildren. He is survived by his wife Lisa Doane, daughters Rachel and Ondi, son David, and five grandchildren.