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 today. 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 today 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
To contact the reporter on this story:
Laurence Arnold in Washington at
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Charles W. Stevens at