Behind 20 Years, American Airlines Just announced the most significant change

What is the big announcement that American airlines made?

Twenty years later, American Airlines made a big announcement. An executive director named W. Douglas Parker reached a giant career milestone: CEO of a major airline. It was America West, and this was September 1, 2001.   

Ten days later, of course, the world has changed, and with it the aviation industry. But over the past 20 years since then, one thing has remained unchanged in the industry until now.   

Parker is at the helm. Last week, news broke that the 60-year-old American Airlines CEO Parker will eventually step down after a series of mergers and acquisitions.    

I have written extensively about how and why business leaders in every industry should pay attention to airlines. These are public companies in the commodities industry, watching an army of analysts, journalists, and stakeholders at every step. It’s hard to imagine another industry that would be so transparent as a result and in which new examples of business leadership regularly appear – the good, the bad, and the ugly.    

No one is mentioned more in these stories than Parker’s name. It honestly doesn’t matter if you are an American Airlines fan or not; Parker has had such a long career with so many teaching moments that it’s hard to imagine the aviation industry without him. Parker once explained how he had to learn not to make impromptu comments about how the airline could be improved.    

Because, as he said, “You don’t want to prioritize what was not a priority. You have to be careful not to let people stop doing what they are doing to take care of what you notice. “

Or is there a story about how Parker was flying a dead passenger on Southwest Airlines and had a lengthy discussion with a flight attendant who was Black who smeared him while reading the book White Fragility? 

She had no idea who she was until she told her later, and the world wouldn’t know about their long, tense conversation, save for the fact that she posted it on social media. They developed an honest friendship, and a year later, Parker attended her wedding.    

Find me another great business leader who has stories like this that follow. The paradox is that even after Parker leaves, he will not leave. First, he holds the record for the longest tenure as CEO of an airline in the post-deregulation era – one mile. Second, it doesn’t come out 100%; instead, he will become president of American, although the airline’s current president, Robert Isom, will take over as CEO. 

But there is also a third element – the sheer degree to which the leaders of the best airlines are so intertwined with each other.  

Parker entered the industry as part of at least one columnist called Brat Pack (a group of young American airline executives in the 1980s, including Parker, many of whom became CEOs). In addition, US rival United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby predicted that there would be more United Airlines next summer. With Parker, he started his executive career in the western United States. Before joining United Airlines and eventually becoming CEO, Kirby was a predecessor to Isom, serving as President of American Airlines under Parker’s leadership.   

In other words, all these guys know each other very well. With the retirement of Parker – the CEO who took over shortly before 9/11 and leaves shortly before (hopefully) the end of the pandemic – this is the beginning of the end of an era. 

Even if you don’t work in the airline industry (like most of us), hopefully, some lessons are evident here.    

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