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American Airlines CEO Doug Parker to Retire in March

Edward Russell
December 7th, 2021 at 9:42 AM EST

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker will retire on March 31, and be succeeded by his longtime deputy, President Robert Isom.

The move will end Parker’s nearly 20-year run at the helm of a U.S. airline, including America West and US Airways, and bookended by crises: 9/11 and the Covid-19 pandemic. Parker, along with then-deputy Scott Kirby — now CEO of United Airlines — orchestrated the merger of American and US Airways in 2013 that created what remains the world’s largest airline to this day.

The news comes a little surprise to those in the industry, as the airline has been working on Parker’s succession plan for years.

“While we still have work to do, the recovery from the pandemic is underway and now is the right time to make the transition,” said Parker in a letter to staff on Tuesday. He called being CEO of American the “best job in all of commercial aviation,” and praised Isom’s team building and operational prowess.

The CEO transition at American is the fourth major leadership change at a U.S. airline since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Kirby took over as CEO of United in May 2020, just two months after the virus all but shut down air travel. Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci stepped into the top spot when Brad Tilden retired at the end of March. And Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly will pass the reins to Bob Jordan at the beginning of February.

Isom takes over an American still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic. The airline is due to fly roughly 89 percent of its 2019 capacity in December, according to Cirium schedules, and its recovery next year will be limited by the same staffing challenges that hamstrung it this summer and autumn. And the latest challenge, the Omicron variant, has slowed near-term traveler demand though the industry remains bullish on 2022.

“It’s about making American the best airline in the business,” Isom said of his plans in an interview with Skift. This includes building on the route map and partnership changes that the airline has made during the crisis, including its controversial new alliance with JetBlue Airways. He added that American has cut $1.3 billion in costs from airline since 2019.

Asked of the Omicron variant, Isom said it does not change his or the airline’s plans. “Anything that restricts travel has a dampening impact. But it will just delay [the recovery] — people want to travel,” he said standing by previous comments about robust pent-up travel demand.

And while Parker is rightly credited with creating the American of today and changing the U.S. industry, he has also faced criticism during his tenure. Some say American is a more mediocre carrier in terms of quality than it was when he took over; for example the carrier controversially densified its Airbus A321s and Boeing 737s, and removed personal entertainment screens from its narrowbody fleet. And, despite initial support from labor unions for the merger, Parker has been at odds with many of the groups, including pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics, for much of his time as CEO.

The transition likely would have occurred a year ago if it was not for the pandemic, said Parker when asked in an interview. After the merger in December 2013, he intended to stay until the integration was complete, which he said occurred when American and the TWU-IAM Association labor group reached an accord covering more than 30,000 maintenance and other staff in January 2020.

On his future plans, Parker joked he remains “gainfully employed” — as he put it at the Skift Aviation Forum in November — for the next four-and-a-half months. After that, he said he has nothing to disclose beyond remaining chair of American’s board of directors.

The leadership transition is expected to bring about little change at American. Isom has worked as Parker’s deputy at the airline since 2016, but with Parker on and off since the mid-1990s. Isom either oversaw or was actively involved in many of the major programs at American during the past five years, including some of the changes that Parker is criticized for. For one, he has repeatedly defended adding seats to narrowbody planes despite passenger complaints.

Updated with comments from an interview with Isom and Parker.

Edward Russell
December 7th, 2021 at 9:42 AM EST

Photo credit: American Airlines CEO Doug Parker (right) will retire at the end of March, and be succeeded by Robert Isom (left). American Airlines

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