American Airlines CEO Doug Parker on how he feels about flying his own airline
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Weary frequent flyers might think airline executives have it easy. They can jump on any flight they want, relax in first class and be whisked through airports by waiting staff.
Some of that is true. But W. Douglas Parker, the chief executive of American Airlines, says his flying life isn’t as cushy as you might suspect.
TPG asked Parker about how he flies, how he handles issues that he spots during his trips and what he talks about with passengers sitting next to him. (Note: The questions below have been condensed and simplified.)
On flying first class vs. economy
TPG: You’re the boss. Do you get special treatment, like preboarding or having the flight held for you?
DP: I fly around a lot and I talk to customers all the time. I try very hard to experience what our customers experience….I board whatever my group number is. I have no (special) status. If I’m in first, I board in the first group. One of every three flights is in coach, so if I’m in Group 6, I board in Group 6. Whatever my seat assignment says.
TPG: But of all people, you don’t have to fly coach.
DP: It’s really up to me that I don’t have special treatment.
TPG: American and other airlines regularly escort VIPs to the gate. Do you get walked or driven to the plane? Do people meet you when you get in?
DP: They absolutely do not do anything at DFW (which is next to American headquarters in Fort Worth). There’s nobody meeting me at the flight. Now, if I’m flying to a smaller airport, the station manager sometimes wants to say hello.
TPG: If someone at American saw “Doug Parker” on a manifest, it would be pretty obvious that it’s you. Is your name flagged in any way to tell them you’re the CEO?
DP: The way we book seats for me is on a credit card with my real name. It’s William, not Doug. So it’s not obvious.
TPG: Let’s say you’re sitting in coach. Do you talk to the people in your row about their impressions of the airline?
DP: I generally don’t force the conversation. I don’t proactively say, “Hi, I’m the CEO of American Airlines.” (But) I always talk to the flight attendants.
TPG: How about when you’re on a station visit, or even just spending time at DFW. Do you talk to employees?
DP: Of course, yes, I do that. I walk through the break room. My dad was in the grocery business (as a regional president with the Kroger Company) and I remember walking through stores with him on weekends. When I’m in airports, I do my own walk-through.
On identifying pain points in the airport
TPG: What are you looking for?
DP: I’m trying to see what customers are seeing. I’m looking for choke points. I’m seeing where lines are forming and where processes aren’t moving, and I want to know why. If you see people in queues, you don’t want that. Sometimes it’s because of the boarding process. Sometimes you get lines because of storms….When I see a TSA line, I’ll ask (gate agents), “Do you realize there’s a queue outside TSA?” I’ve done that a few times.
TPG: If you notice something amiss in a process American can control, do you bring it up?
DP: I do, but I can’t think of a time when the answer wasn’t, “Oh, yes, we’re working on it.” … Any CEO will tell you that you may see things and question them, but you have to be very careful doing anything about it.
DP: You don’t want to change the priority of something that wasn’t a priority. You want to be careful not to have people drop what they are doing so they can take care of something you noticed.
On the benefits of flying in 2020
TPG: Your career mirrors what’s happened to the airline industry in the years since deregulation. What are the biggest changes that have taken place since, say, 1990?
DP: It is easier to make changes (to the system). It absolutely is easier. It is dramatically easier to get places. Obviously, security has changed tremendously. But there are many more flights to many more places at much lower fares. People can travel more quickly and less expensively.
Remember that there used to be lines outside security. There used to be lines to get a boarding pass. You had to go to the airport to change a flight. You could run into lines whether you were checking a bag or not. There was a lot of anxiety in the travel process, even before the flight left.
None of that exists any more. There’s no issue other than security, all the way to the gate. You have information at your fingertips. The only way you’d know whether your bag made it on the plane was by standing at the carousel. Now, we know when the plane is in the air if your bag didn’t make it and we can alert you.
Micheline Maynard is a contributor at The Points Guy. She grew up as an airline child and regularly aces the Airports category on Jeopardy. She has written about the industry for New York Newsday, The New York Times and Forbes.com.
Featured photo of Alan Joyce and Doug Parker by Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
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