Answer Man

Answer Man: Bomb started death spiral for flight insurance

Q. The recent airline tragedies prompt this question from an old-timer: In the 1960s and ’70s, you could buy life insurance before your flight through vending machines at the airport. They disappeared a long time ago. Why?

— Cory McLeod, of O’Fallon

A. Those last-chance policy-dispensing machines for aviophobics afraid of landing in heaven rather than LAX began hitting turbulence way back on Nov. 1, 1955.

That’s the day Denver-native John “Jack” Gilbert Graham thought he had concocted one of those perfect crimes. With his mother, Daisie King, headed to Alaska to visit her daughter, the 23-year-old Graham figured he’d simply buy an insurance policy on her at the airport, blow up the plane and collect the $37,000. No messy guns or knives that can leave valuable clues; just zillions of pieces of airplane scattered over countless acres.

Sadly, that’s almost exactly what happened. After stopping in Denver, World War II veteran pilot Lee Hall took Flight 629 off for Portland, Ore., aboard a Douglas DC-6B. He didn’t know Graham had smuggled a dynamite bomb into his mother’s suitcase. Minutes after takeoff, the bomb detonated and the flaming wreckage crashed into farmland near Longmont, Colo., killing all 44 on board.

Fortunately for the victims’ families seeking justice, this wasn’t the first suspicious coincidence involving Graham. Earlier that same year, he had received a settlement after his mother’s restaurant had been hit by “a suspicious explosion.” Others suspected that he once deliberately had his pick-up truck destroyed by a train, also for the insurance money.

So based on interviews, contradictory statements, physical evidence and, finally, a confession, Graham was charged with murder. He protested and recanted his confession. ( “I loved my mother very much,” he told KDEN’s Gene Amole, when the Denver radio station owner managed to sneak into the jail for an interview.) But he was found guilty on one count of premeditated murder — his mother. (As incredible as it sounds, there was no federal law at the time that made blowing up a plane a crime so they didn’t charge him for the other 43 deaths.) He received speedy justice — death in the Colorado State Penitentiary gas chamber on Jan. 11, 1957, just 13 months after the plane went down.

It also prompted Colorado to take a second look at the propriety of having those insurance dispensers in airports. Officials finally decided it might be better if a living person dealt with fliers desiring insurance to perhaps better judge whether, like Graham, they might have some nefarious motive in mind. So Colorado banned the machines, requiring instead a human sales crew. Over the next 25 years, all such machines went the way of the biplane and the zeppelin.

As you note, aviation insurance had been around almost from the time the Wright Brothers buzzed over that windswept beach in North Carolina. Lloyd’s of London started offering policies in 1911, but stopped the next year when crashes at an air show produced major losses Then, in 1919, Travelers began offering White Wings policies, the first death-and-disability policies offered specifically to passengers. The first such “Aero Ticket” reportedly was issued to President Woodrow Wilson — $5 for $5,000 of coverage. The next two went to the Wright Brothers.

For the next 25 years or so, the policies were sold by ticketing agencies, much like rent-a-car agencies always trying to convince you that you need extra insurance. But when passenger traffic started to soar after World War II, dozens of boarding passengers filling out policy information began to delay flights. Instead, the first coin-operated machine is believed to have coughed up its first policy on Oct. 4, 1946, at New York’s Central Air Terminal. A counter staffed with humans followed two years later. By 1963, travelers could buy $100,000 policies at most airports.

Yet already by then, such policies were going the way of the dodo for several reasons. For one thing, companies were finding it less and less profitable. To set up a machine or counter you have to pay the airport rental space. Even though the chances of having to pay claims is low, the rental fees often equaled or exceeded the premiums. Moreover, the big insurance companies were bidding up the rental fees to keep competitors out, according to a 1960 Senate report.

At the same time, regulators saw that passengers were getting a raw deal on these policies that charged whopping fees for little risk so insurance companies were pressured to either cut prices or increase their payouts. In 1970, for example, New York required companies to cut prices by 60 percent or increase benefits by a similar amount. Companies at first pulled out but finally gave in. Still, income fell.

Then, of course, Diners Club came along in 1958, offering travel insurance to its cardholders. Now anyone with a credit card likely gets insurance simply by charging their tickets on that card.

Finally, passengers realized that the chances of meeting with disaster are next to nothing so they may as well flush that money out into the breeze during the flight. Now, most travelers simply want trip refund or cancellation insurance while the last vending machines may be collecting dust at the Smithsonian.

Today’s trivia

How much did Elvis Presley pay for Graceland?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: After failing to become a professional golfer, James Wesley Voight changed his name and his profession. In music circles he became known as Chip Taylor, and in the early 1960s, he started writing hit after hit. Just a few of his well-known creations include “Wild Thing” (The Troggs), “Angel of the Morning” (Merilee Rush) and “Julie” (Bobby Fuller Four). Now 75, he is the younger brother of Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight and uncle of actress Angelina Jolie.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or call 618-239-2465.