It wasn’t long after I started as a pricing analyst at America West Airlines that I first met now-American Airlines CEO Doug Parker. At the time, pricing and revenue management fell under the finance umbrella, and our holiday party was at our VP’s house way up in north Scottsdale. I was just standing around and drinking a beer, when I started talking to this guy with floppy hair.
It never dawned on me that this person was our CFO, but sure enough, he was. Doug couldn’t have been more unassuming, and he seemed interested in our conversation, the contents of which I’ve long forgotten. The only thing I really remember from that interaction is that I instantly liked him.
I couldn’t have known at the time that Doug was destined for one of the most impressive 15 year runs as CEO that the industry has ever seen.
As I think everyone knows by now, Doug took over as the CEO of America West 10 days before 9/11. That might have been a convenient excuse for our troubles, but America West was already in a concerning place before that. When the .com bubble burst in 2000, our high-fare gravy train ended. We were a spill carrier, and there wasn’t much spill to be had. The idea of profit-sharing had already begun to fade, but it was positively gone after 9/11.
The stories have been told many a time, but it didn’t take long for the reality to set in that America West wasn’t likely to be around much longer, and that meant our jobs would be gone as well. Yet despite that likelihood, there was something comforting about knowing our senior management team was on the case. They were dealt a losing hand, but they weren’t about to fold.
Once the bailouts were finalized, we had breathing room, and that created a limited opportunity for us to fix ourselves. Under now-United CEO Scott Kirby’s leadership, we completely remade our pricing strategy. I can remember pushing the button that would delete our entire fare structure and feeling a mix of anxiety and relief. We would either sink or swim, and while it was Scott that masterminded this plan, Doug as CEO had to buy in or it wouldn’t have happened. He put faith in the right people at the right time to make the right decisions.
While all this was going on, I had submitted an application to get my MBA at Stanford, and Doug was willing to provide a letter of recommendation. I was scheduled to hear if I made it on a certain date, so I told people to meet me a bar on Mill Ave in Tempe near headquarters so we could drink either way. I didn’t expect it, but sure enough, Doug walked in and had a drink as I found out I was going to be sitting on the waitlist.
I’m sure Doug knew that would be meaningful to me, and that I wouldn’t forget it. I imagine there are many stories like these out there, but they just don’t get told. That’s because he doesn’t do it for recognition or some corporate purpose. It’s just who he is.
I was fortunate enough to get off the waitlist in the fall of 2002, and my time at America West was done. The airline as a whole couldn’t have been nicer about me packing up and leaving so quickly. It felt like leaving family behind.
After I left, I watched from the sidelines as the core team of Doug, Scott, Derek (Kerr), Elise (Eberwein), and Steve (Johnson) took little America West to the stratosphere. Doug was always a big proponent of consolidation to lead to a more stable and successful industry, and he wasn’t just talk. The team engineered the buyout and then ensuing successful makeover of US Airways. They took a swing at Delta and failed, but that didn’t deter them. They navigated the Great Recession (just barely), and then they got close to doing a deal with United before Continental — which CEO Jeff Smisek obnoxiously called “the pretty girl” to US Airways’s “ugly girl” — snatched that away.
That left American as the only real option, and the team engineered a truly impressive feat, getting American’s unions to buy in before the deal was done. By 2015, America West — granted, under a slightly different name — was the biggest airline in the world.
Of course, this was a team effort, and I’m fairly certain Doug wouldn’t want it to be considered any other way. After all, none of this happens without that group. But when you’re the head of that team, you get the recognition… as well as the blame. Had Doug left shortly after the American merger, I think you’d see universal praise for a remarkable career. (Ok, let’s say “nearly” universal praise since former American CEO Tom Horton would probably disagree, but I digress.)
There’s little question that the last 5 years have been very different. With no mergers to be had or deals to engineer, the job was about trying to rebuild the monstrous American, an airline which had been neglected and mismanaged for years. Doug always cared deeply about labor and personal relationships, but even the old US Airways East pilots and their crazy shenanigans couldn’t hold a candle to American’s dysfunction.
When Scott Kirby was let go and subsequently went to United — a whole sordid affair in its own right — a lot of the hard-charging energy he brought to the commercial team in particular disappeared. Doug continued to step further and further back from the day-to-day running of the airline, and there was a general sense of stagnation. During the pandemic, he spent much of his time in DC, lobbying for payroll support while Robert Isom, president for the last 5 years, ran the airline.
The thing is, as I said before, when you’re at the top you get the credit and the blame. And as American struggled with bloated costs, revenue issues, poorly-executed projects like the Oasis retrofit, and labor groups so angry that they turned down extra money to fly during the holidays — the pilots did, at least — the blame all piled up on Doug. And ultimately, that’s where the blame should fall. As President Truman said, “the buck stops here.” The last five years have created a somewhat more complicated legacy for Doug, and that’s really unfortunate.
Doug isn’t gone for good. He will stick around as chairman, but Robert will slide into the CEO role. There is no surprise here. Ever since the decision was made to go with Robert over Scott as the heir apparent, the CEO job was Robert’s to lose. The board must be happy with him, and now we get to see if he’s planning on doing anything different.
Will this be a true continuation of what’s already been happening at American? Or has Robert felt hamstrung, unable to put his complete stamp on the organization? At this point, the assumption is that it’s a continuation of what we’ve already seen, but you never know for sure. We should really get a sense of where this is going when Robert announces his direct reports and executive team.
So, we wait, but in the meantime, we should unquestionably be celebrating the successful career of Doug Parker. I know that emotions have remained raw for several at American for a variety of reasons over the last 5 years, but if you step back and look at this from above, you find someone who cared about employees, fought to save their jobs, and built a team that created the biggest airline in the world from almost nothing in a short 15 year span. That is a remarkable achievement.