Ralph Bahna, Innovator Who Led Cunard, Priceline, Dies at 71Laurence Arnold
Ralph Bahna, a former Trans World Airlines and Cunard executive who expanded business travelers’ options as founder of Club Quarters hotels and chairman of Priceline.com Inc., the “name your own price” website, has died. He was 71.
He died on Feb. 24 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan, according to his daughter, Laura Lovejoy. The cause was cardiac failure, she said yesterday. He lived in Stamford, Connecticut.
Bahna’s focus on the business traveler began with his first job, at TWA, where where he helped design its first business-class seating program, called Ambassador Class.
As chief executive officer from 1980 to 1989 of Cunard Line Ltd., Bahna was credited with shaping the modern cruise industry and keeping afloat the Queen Elizabeth 2.
In one bit of marketing ingenuity, he signed a partnership with British Airways to offer round trips consisting of a trans-Atlantic cruise and a return on the supersonic Concorde. He was a pioneer of so-called open-jaw itineraries to Alaska, where cruises start and end at different ports, and gave the QE2 another 20 years of life by refitting it from steam to diesel power, Michael Gallagher, a London-based spokesman for cruise line, said yesterday in an e-mail.
“He was responsible for many of the programs which made Cunard at that time a leader in various fields of the industry,” Gallagher said.
Starting with the first Club Quarters hotel, opened in 1994 on West 45th Street in midtown Manhattan, Bahna gave business travelers new downtown options close to major corporate centers, with priority availability to member companies and organizations. The chain’s website now lists five hotels in Manhattan -- including at 52 William St., one block north of Wall Street -- and others in London, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston.
His goals for Club Quarters were “to have the best locations, be full service, charge less, and still make a big profit,” he said in a 2012 interview with the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where he earned his MBA in 1965. The school inducted him into its alumni hall of fame.
Bahna was a board member of Priceline.com, now the largest U.S. online travel agent, in 1998 when it started. The company went public a year later. He became chairman in 2004 and served until his retirement on Jan. 1, 2013.
Ralph M. Bahna -- he adopted a middle initial without having a middle name, Lovejoy said -- was born on Aug. 23, 1942, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the second of two children of Ralph Bahna, a lawyer, and the former Frieda Mushro.
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1964, Bahna was a wrestler on two Big Ten Conference championship squads, winning the 123-pound title as a senior, according to the school. He and his wife provided the lead donation to build the Bahna Wrestling Center in 2009.
While working for TWA in commercial sales, Bahna delved into the emerging airline market called business class, a level between first class and economy. Bahna said he devised a seating plan and amenities for what would become TWA’s Ambassador Class, then devoted two years and 29 documents to persuade his bosses to implement it, according to a 1986 article in Dividend, the magazine of the University of Michigan School of Business Administration.
He joined Cunard in 1973 as senior vice president in charge of marketing and sales and became president of the company’s North American business. In 1977, at 34, he was named president and chief operating officer of worldwide operations. He became CEO in 1981 and was the first American in charge of global operations for the British-owned cruise line, founded in 1840.
Bahna put Cunard on “a strict financial austerity program” following losses in 1979, the New York Times reported in 1980. He won concessions from British labor unions including a reduction in pay demands and an agreement to move the QE2 across the Atlantic, to the Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s yard in Bayonne, New Jersey, for overhaul work, the Times said. That enabled Cunard to send the renovated ship directly into service in the Caribbean during the heavily booked winter season.
Also under Bahna, the company acquired Norwegian American Cruises in 1983 and the ships Sea Goddess I and II from Norske Cruise of Norway in 1986.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife, the former Dorothy Ballard; another daughter, Deborah Chrabolowski; a son, Adam; a sister, Joanne Deeb; and eight grandchildren.