A Magical Interview with American Airlines CEO Doug Parker

American, Podcast, The Cranky Flier Interview, Uncategorized

I mentioned the big press event at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in yesterday’s post, and I said I’d follow it up today with a podcast with American CEO Doug Parker.  You’ll find that embedded down below, or if you can’t wait, you can find it here.  But I thought I’d first mention my brush with greatness that happened in between.

After the event, I was told to hang back and American’s local PR person Curtis Blessing would come get me for my interview with Doug.  Curtis asked if I had any flexibility, because there was a short but important meeting they had to squeeze in with Doug before I spoke to him.  I said that wasn’t a problem.

Curtis brought me upstairs into the airline’s Flagship Lounge, and we waited outside the meeting room toward the back left corner.  Doug as there, and behind, emerging from the back entrance, was none other than Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the former Lakers great who is now — and this is an understatement — a important pillar of the community.  He flashed his trademark smile, and he shook everyone’s hands (including a very surprised travel who just happened to be sitting there).

It takes a lot for me to be starstruck, but this certainly did it.  I grew up in Los Angeles during the Showtime era and was naturally a big Laker fan.  When we got a puppy, I was the one who successfully lobbied to name him Magic.  And I can still remember exactly where I was — standing in line for the bus ride home from school — when I heard he had HIV and was retiring from basketball.  How he has spent the 25+ years since that day is inspiring for many reasons: his community involvement, his business prowess, and his sheer determination.

When he and Doug slipped into the room for a brief chat, I felt like a little kid again.

Why was Magic there?  I’m not sure if there was anything specific or not.  I do know that American showed off a video at the press conference with endorsements from several locals, and Magic had an enthusiastic part to play in that video.  He apparently has been a long-time fan of American, and American has long been a partner with the Magic Johnson Foundation. 

Soon they emerged, and Doug showed him around the lounge.  Then Doug asked if he’d be interested in going down on the ramp and meeting the team.  Magic thought it was a great idea, and suddenly, I was joining the party.

I have no idea if they wanted me to come along or if they just had to take me since I was under escort and hadn’t gone through security.  Either way, I was soon part of the team heading into the elevator behind the kitchen going down to the ramp.  That’s when American’s SVP of Los Angeles (whose blonde hair you can see in the front) snapped this photo.  That’s Doug at far right, and you know which one is Magic.

Magic owns part of the Dodgers, and since the team had a late night in extra innings the evening before, I awkwardly asked if he was tired.  He laughed and noted that he had to swing by Lakers practice and then get back to Chavez Ravine in time for the Dodgers 2pm. There was no time to be tired, yet here he was taking time to go shake hands.

On the ramp, people started to trickle toward him and take selfies.  I think most of us assumed he couldn’t stay long since he had so much going on that day, but he just kept going.  Someone suggested he go visit the break room, and he jumped at the chance.  There were a ton of grown adults suddenly acting like little children at the sight of the Los Angeles legend.

Just imagine a group of employees who are standing around when their CEO walks in.  That’s usually something of a rock star moment.  But if Magic walks in at the same time?  Uh… Doug who?  All eyes were on Magic.

Eventually Magic did make his way back to a car on the ramp and he headed out.  The rest of us went upstairs with goofy grins on our faces.  A Captain coming in from the employee parking area rode the elevator up with us, and Doug casually blurted, “You just missed Magic Johnson.”  The Captain looked mildly confused.

Back in the meeting room in the Flagship Lounge, the mood was unsurprisingly giddy.  We all took a breath and started the interview, which you can hear below.  (In case you’re wondering, this interview was strictly about Los Angeles.  We spoke about some other things, and I’m working to confirm whether I can write about those on the record or not.)

It’s not often that an interview with the CEO of the world’s largest airline isn’t the main headline, but when Magic walks in the room, it’s a different story.

Thanks to everyone at American for letting me tag along for what turned out to be one heck of a morning.

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9 comments on “A Magical Interview with American Airlines CEO Doug Parker

  1. What a great story and how exciting for you. I was so excited myself to hear of the new LAX terminal and the new flights it would most likely offer. I am a former USAIRWAYS Employee starting a new career and still retain my AA flight benefits so this is a win-win for me and the traveling public. See you in the sky!

    Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone.

  2. A genuine handshake and “Good job!” from a celebrity or C-level exec to hard-working individuals at the bottom of the org chart means the world, and is great for morale.

    I always enjoy hearing when VIPs move past the scripted PR moments and press the flesh (or better yet, work side by side for a few minutes) with the rank and file.

    On another note, even if it were done as a PR stunt, I’d like to see American put Magic in an employee uniform and have him scan boarding passes (or help FAs with the passenger safety briefing) for a random flight. It would likely be the highlight of the careers of the employees Magic helped, and it would be fun to see passengers’ reactions as they realized who the “employee” was.

  3. Wow! As a native Angeleno (Pasadena), and airline geek, I can thoroughly appreciate all angles of this!

  4. Nice story. It’s amazing how things can change. I ran into Magic Johnson on a flight into LAX in the early 90s: he was sitting in first class a row in front of me. It was right after he announced that he had AIDS and was retirimg. No one made a fuss over him. In fact, I think folks were a little afraid to even shake his hand. That seems crazy now, but those were different times, and AIDS was a very scary disease then. It’s terrific how he bounced back from it.

    BTW, do people still run into celebrities at LAX these days? I used to run into them regularly. I don’t fly through there that much these days, but I think so many of the A-List now fly private that it’s probably much less common.

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