Across the Aisle from US Airways CEO Doug Parker on The Importance of Employee Communications (Part 1)

Last week, I had the chance to interview current US Airways CEO Doug Parker. As we all know, he’ll be running the new American Airlines when the merger closes at some point in the third quarter of this year. It ended up being a good 20 minute conversation, so I decided to split this into two parts. Today we’ll start with the piece on employee communication. That was clearly an important theme that came up time and time again at media day. Tomorrow we’ll get into more about important onboard product features, plans for Asia, and more.

US Airways CEO Doug Parker

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Cranky: I was told originally I had like 10 minutes, so I thought I’d spend this whole time discussing the livery.
Doug Parker, US Airways CEO: [Big Laugh]
Cranky: I have no other questions.
Doug: You know, nobody’s asked about the livery today.
Cranky: That’s because everyone knows better by now.

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Cranky: It’s always interesting to watch the progress [at Media Day] every year, but with US Airways, things are running well. The things you said Across the Aisle US Airwaysyou’d focus on with reliability, convenience, and appearance are working well. But now it’s a completely different story with American because it’s a completely different kind of airline. When you’re approaching this, there’s so much to consider around network, employees… how do you even decide where to focus your time?

Doug: Mine?

Cranky: Yeah, yours specifically

Doug: My time is and has to be focused mostly on employee communication. That’s where I’ve gotta be spending my time. I can do some of that now, but I can’t go traveling around the American system; though I guess I could if I asked. But it’s less effective anyway since we’re two separate airlines. The right thing to do is to go around and let people know what’s going on. One it’s the right thing to do and two, it’s an easy thing to do because we have the right people doing all this.

So much of this is just trying to learn it all. One of the things, having done this before now, we have the ability now to look back and the reality is I don’t remember what happened in the first 6 months exactly in the US Airways/America West deal. At the time we were thinking, “we have to get this done tomorrow and this done tomorrow and we’ll do all those things.” But the real answer is that’ll pass. And you can get yourself so focused on that that you forget about the longer term. The integration has to get done and it will get done, but that’s not the big picture. The big picture is we’re going to go build this airline and it’s gonna take time to do it right. It’s going to be something that lasts forever, not for 6 months. So that’s my focus.

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Cranky: When you’re talking about employee communications, it’s a tall task. Maybe not the nuts and bolts of it, but having an impact on the employees. I’ve had several flights on American lately, and have had some great crews, but most felt fairly indifferent about this. I guess they’ve gotten beyond anger. If it’s anger, that’s almost easier to deal with. It’s some kind of emotion.

Doug: [Laughs]

Cranky: So how do you reach those people?

Doug: You gotta figure a way to communicate with them. It’s hard of course, because you can’t fly on every airplane. What I can tell you is my experience flying around has been dramatically different than that. It may just be that I’ve had different crews.

Cranky: You’re a different person…

Doug: It may just be I haven’t had the same crews, but the people I’ve flown with have been anything but indifferent, they’ve been over-the-top excited. So that’s great, but it’s also something we have to be cognizant of. Because if we don’t do anything about it, it could be worse than indifference. It could be people were so excited and nothing changed. I worry as much about that as I do about the indifference. But anyway, I haven’t experienced [indifference]. And what that says to me is to the extent we can communicate, that people really are excited and want to be excited. But it gets to the same question, how do you get to 100,000 people?

So Michelle [Mohr, Director of Communications at US Airways, who was in the room] and people like her are really good at this. I can tell you what we do here has been phenomenally successful with Crew News. We go every month like clockwork and we do a pilot and flight attendant session. They’re in training so they have a free hour. You spend 10 minutes talking about the airline and spend 15 minutes taking questions and you film it, so there it is.

Michelle Mohr, Direct or Corp Comm for US Airways: We get 2,000 hits a month.

Doug: Two thousand hits a month at US Airways. It’s a fantastic communication vehicle. We do things like that. It’s not perfect, but it works well. The people who want to know what’s going on can find a way to figure out what’s going on.

And the other thing is it can’t all be me. We have to have a team in place – we have that now at US Airways. The reason we don’t have to have everybody tune into Crew News is because they hear this stuff from their own supervisors and Vice Presidents. We have officers that know a big part of their job is showing up and going to talk to their people. Every week we’re gonna ask them, who’d you talk to this week?

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Cranky: And when are we going to see those people [in the new American]? Technically I believe you’re the only employee of the new airline.

Doug: Well, I’m not an employee. I’m an employee of US Airways and not American Airlines.

Cranky: Yeah, but you are the only announced employee, so when are we going to see more officers?

Doug: It’ll be before we close, I know that. And then the question is when before we close. Should we do something sooner than that? One one hand, we say “well yeah, the uncertainty is not good.” So once we know the right answer, we should get on with it. And I think that’s the right answer. What you don’t want to do is rush the decision. I have gone and looked at benchmarks at the other airlines — United/Continental and Delta/Northwest — and it’s about 3 months after the announcement So for us, that would be May 14. Sometime around there would be the earliest.

Cranky: I hear a lot of uncertainty on both sides. On the US Airways side it’s “will I have a job, and oh wait, do I have to go to Dallas?” while on the American side it’s “Is this a takeover”? I know there’s been a lot of discussion about how it’s not that way, but you can understand how on the American side, it’s hard to not to at least see it that way. So I think that’s the benefit [of announcing earlier].

Doug: Yeah, I know. I acknowledge there will be some value in announcing the team, but we won’t do it if we’re not ready.

Cranky: But when it does happen, I assume we’ll see people from both sides as a part of that team.

Doug: Oh yeah, it’ll be a mixture of both sides.

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Come back tomorrow for the second part of the interview where we talk about the onboard product features that matter most, what to do in Asia, and more.


23 Responses to Across the Aisle from US Airways CEO Doug Parker on The Importance of Employee Communications (Part 1)

  1. Nice to see he would take the time to sit and talk with you.

    The frontline AA people for the most part should feel secure, it’s the back office groups that should know they many no longer be around or have different types jobs.

  2. simris2k says:

    I can say that flight attendants are fairly happy with the merger and the idea of a “take-over” has not come up among the crews I fly with. We are actually interacting pretty well with our US Airways counterparts on Facebook. We all understand the advantages being brought by both companies and that the end result will be a very good and strong airline. This is so different from the TWA madness that plagued us with insanely bad feeling and emotions for a long time.

    • CF says:

      simris2k – I guess I hear more of that from the corporate side of the house. For the front line, there will be jobs for everyone, but as David said above, there won’t be such an opportunity for corporate.

  3. I really like Doug Parker, but I have trouble believing that his primary role right now is employee communications. Shouldn’t he be assisting in orchestrating this merger or is that all delegated out?

    • CF says:

      Nick – It is pretty much delegated out. They have their integration management office which is headed up by Robert Isom and Bev Goulet. From there, they are directing 29 different integration teams. So Doug is really above the day to day integration work. Seems to me he’s more like the rudder, just making sure the ship keeps moving in the right direction.

    • Mke says:

      delegating it, as cranky mentioned, makes sense.

      he’ll be involved in some high level strategy decisions
      but in the long run, the merger won’t sink or swim based on aligned catering or what not.
      its more about making sure he has a workforce that stands behind the changes.
      helps to keep them in the loop.

  4. Jay F. says:

    I can understand this was a softball interview, given the fact Cranky does not have journalism credentials. I have a client that has elite level with USeless Air. Several times he’s had to endure international flights with no meals served in First Class. The purser stated that the airline forgot to pay the catering service! My experience from Costa Rica to Charlotte was unique for being the only time a plane departed without safety demonstrations or announcements. I would have started by asking Mr. Parker if he feels proud of running an airline that never makes the top ten in quality of service.

    • reese says:

      The ‘lame ‘reference of USeless Air……very old, very tired and makes Me think You have NO Credibility. Elite Level?Probably a Low Level FF who thinks SILVER means Elite……..hardly (Actually just above Pond Scum). No way would some one be even seated in F/C if a meal could NOT be accommodated, FACT. Just because a flight may leave the USA and serve a foreign destination DOESN’T automatically trigger a MEAL SERVICE (Bahamas,Turks,Mexico,Canada)…….it’s THEIR Policy, NO Meals under 3.5 Hours. And as far as quoting the Purser about not paying the Bills……The Crew would NEVER be privy to ANY of that Information. And as far as Your SAFETY Assessment………I have been flying over 35 years and have Never seen it ANYWHERE and I am sure THAT Bit of the Story is One TALL Tale, otherwise known as A LIE.

  5. rich says:

    I usually like your articles but this one was completely useless. He didn’t say anything useful. Hopefully part 2 has something more useful.

    As to him seeing something different, well people generally act very differently around the boss if they want to keep their job.

    • Mke says:

      i was fully expecting him to divulge non-public information such as organizational structure or how many people they will lay-off.
      NOT.

  6. David says:

    C’mon people – Cranky is a guy with a blog who’s managed to gain sufficient influence in the air travel arena that a large airline CEO is willing to give him some time for an interview when there’s no formal journalistic organisation involved. Does nobody think that it might be worth congratulating Brett on the blog he’s built up ?

  7. Pingback: Across the Aisle from US Airways CEO Doug Parker on Important Product Features, Asia, and oneworld (Part 2) - >> The Cranky Flier

  8. sandee09 says:

    The fact that Brett did get an off the cuff interview should say something for not only Brett but for Doug Parker as well. Parker could have blown him off. And for those folks that want to bad mouth the airline “Useless Air”, for goodness sakes look inward if you want to bash someone or something.

  9. If Parker is the “Great Communicator” how is it he could not, or did not, communicate to his flight crews a way to merge their seniority lists? He was running two separate airlines and by pitting the East and West groups together was able to keep his costs down, except when it came to his bonuses.

    • CF says:

      allan donovan – I’d like to hear an explanation for how seniority list integrations are in any way management’s business. The pilots need to decide how they want to merger their lists and management can’t dictate how that happens. Management did not pit one side against the other. The two sides agreed to follower integration protocol until the East side didn’t like what it got. So it threw out the rule book and caused the strife between both sides. The seniority list integration has nothing to do with management.

  10. Pingback: Across the Aisle from US Airways CEO Doug Parker on Important Product Features, Asia, and oneworld (Part 2) | Hack.Travel

  11. Tim Kirkwood says:

    TWA flight attendants deserve earned seniority restored before merger is approved
    By Dixie Daniels, flight attendant – 03/14/13 04:00 PM ET

    One of the great workforce injustices in aviation history occurred when the Association of Professional Flight Attendants at American Airlines (APFA), took unilateral action against the former TWA flight attendants by stripping them of all earned date of hire seniority from TWA.

    In an interview with The Fort Worth Star Telegram, APFA President Laura Glading admitted APFA made a ?mistake? and ?screwed-up big time? by stapling the TWA members to the bottom of the seniority list. Ms. Glading has done nothing to remedy that mistake. APFA continues to cause direct financial harm to the former TWA attendants hoping they will retire or quit. Because the TWA attendants were laid off after 9/11 and unemployed for almost 10 years, they lost pension contributions, salary and benefits totaling more than $2 Billion. They must continue to work and many will until they are no longer physically able…

    Read more: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/288193-twa-flight-attendants-deserve-earned-seniority-restored-before-merger-is-approved?fb_action_ids=10151314449877038&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=288381481237582#ixzz2O5qTQI6E
    Follow us: @thehill on Twitter | TheHill on Facebook

    • CF says:

      Tim – You are not allowed to reprint articles in full without getting explicit permission from the source. I have cut it down to be a fair use excerpt with a link at the bottom for those who want to read the rest.

      • Tim Kirkwood says:

        Thanks, CF. I do have permission from the author, and I appreciate you allowing it to remain on the site.

        Tim

  12. michael says:

    the TWA FAs forget that TWA doesnt exist anymore, they have their full top pay scale, retirement and travel benefits and dont forget they have a job! The TWA FAs union threw them under the bus, the APFA was just doing their job, protecting their dues paying FAs. Move on you could have left TWA back in the 80s like alot of them did. The ones that saw the writing on the wall in the 80s and left and started all over at AA back then should be penalized? Same thing happened to Reno as TWA, get over it!

    • Michael-

      So you’re saying when we encounter injustice, we should just walk away from it?

      That notwithstanding, in the merger APFA is fighting for date-of-hire (coincidentally, the thing TWA was asking for in the first place). The former TWAers still at AA are dues paying members of APFA, and yet, APFA, who is supposed to be representing us as members, is NOT giving us our date of hire- which you will find on our ID cards, as well as our company file. That’s mis-representation, and not good union practice.

      That’s why we are still fighting this injustice.

  13. Realist says:

    Shocking news; the labor groups that will get an immediate ~40% pay raise when the deal closes are excited and those that “only” got a 10-15% pay raise over the next 5-6 years (plus 20% equity in the company) are “indifferent”. Cranky, this was predicted despite your assurances that the merger would solve all the labor issues forever. The indifference will return to the usual anger and surliness as soon as something (e.g., seniority integration) doesn’t go their way, which could be soon considering various labor groups are still suing each other.

    And as for “…and oh wait, do I have to go to Dallas?” you should tell your friends that clearly the answer is no; encourage them to stay behind and seek employment elsewhere in the Phoenix area if they don’t want to move. Of course if they must move to DFW you can console them by reminding them that at least they don’t have to move to that stinking bung hole called Los Angeles.

  14. Anthony says:

    Interesting read. I don’t see indifference her at AA..I see thousands of employees who want our management team out!! Ask anyone in the line and the consensus is that the blood on the hands of management as relates to our failure as a viable carrier- and their arrogance to admit that it was blunder after blunder that drove us to this point -are the driving factors which excites them about the merger. I for one cant see things any worse here…so I for one will welcome US and Mr Parker with open arms.

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