NEW YORK — Ralph M. Bahna, who is credited with creating one of the first luxury business-class services on a major airline and later became chairman of Priceline.com, died on Feb. 24 in Manhattan. He was 71.
Jay S. Walker, the founder of Priceline.com, said the cause was heart failure. Mr. Bahna lived in Stamford, Conn.
Mr. Bahna, a former college wrestler, was a transformational figure in the travel industry. He started his career at TWA, an ailing airline at the time, after graduating from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1966.
One of his first steps was to create “Ambassador Class,” priced between first class and coach class but offering many of the luxuries that came with first class. The new class was widely considered a masterstroke that helped revive the fortunes of TWA and was copied throughout the industry, becoming a profit engine for airlines.
“He was a marketing genius,” said Walker, who described him as a modest executive who eschewed public attention.
At only 30 years old, Mr. Bahna became president of the American unit of Cunard Line Ltd., the British company that operates the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth 2. When he took the post, Cunard was in decline, facing increasing competition from the airline industry. Bucking industry conventions, he began marketing the QE2 as a luxury vacation, rather than simply as a way to travel across the Atlantic, and teamed with British Airways to provide flights back to the United States on the Concorde.
Cunard became the largest buyer of Concorde seats, Walker said, and was such an important customer that British Airways regularly held flights for Mr. Bahna if he was running late. Mr. Bahna’s reimagining of the QE2 worked: Cunard’s business quadrupled under his leadership.
In 1980 he was named chief executive and chairman of the entire company; three years later, he oversaw Cunard’s acquisition of Norwegian American Cruises.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Bahna developed a new business called Club Quarters, an international chain of hotels for business travelers in prominent areas of major cities, like Rockefeller Center in New York.
Perhaps Mr. Bahna’s greatest success was as an early investor and later chairman of Priceline.com, a website that allows customers to “name your own price” for hotels and air reservations and that was made famous, in part, by its longtime spokesman, William Shatner. While Mr. Bahna was chairman, the company’s stock price rose over 5,000 percent.
Mr. Bahna was born on Aug. 23, 1942, in Grand Rapids, Mich. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1964.
In 1966 he married Dorothy Ballard. He leaves his wife; his daughters, Deborah Chrabolowski and Laura Lovejoy; his son, Adam; his sister, Joanne Deeb; and eight grandchildren.