American Airlines CEO discusses comms strategy behind US Airways merger

American Airlines Group's Doug Parker tells Diana Bradley why the company's PR unit has been a key part of its merger with US Airways.

Doug Parker
Doug Parker

In April, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded American Airlines and US Airways a single operating certificate. What has been your comms approach, internally, around the merger?
The majority of my time has been working on comms efforts with my employees versus anything else. We have more than 100,000 staffers across the US and all over the world.

I take a candid, transparent approach to comms, trying very hard not to include corporate speak or propaganda. Every two weeks, I hold a Q&A session with employees, so that if something big happens at the airline or in the industry, we address it.

I usually will stand in front of a group of pilots or flight attendants, talk for five minutes, and then answer questions for the remaining 55 minutes. Those sessions are filmed and shared on our intranet, which is accessible to all employees and retirees.

When I hear things important to the team, it helps as we can address the issues and give them the tools they need to do their jobs.

What is your take on the Department of Justice’s claims that the merger creates less competition and higher prices among the aviation industry?
They were wrong. They thought we were going to close hubs, consolidate, and reduce our number of employees, but we have grown every hub and hired 13,000 people last year. We also created a third competitor to Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

Airplane safety has been brought into question many times in the past year, following incidents involving Malaysia Airlines and Germanwings. How do you promote your own safety precautions to customers?
Safety is our top priority and we don’t ever compromise it. We communicate that at every possible opportunity. Our customers know that, so we don’t try to over communicate about it.

The professionalism of our people and the reliability of our fleet get that message across. We haven’t had any issues with customer input on safety.

In October, American Airlines’ mechanics filed a complaint, later substantiated by the FAA, alleging intimidation and retaliation by your company’s supervisors and management for writing up aircraft maintenance discrepancies. How did you respond?
We think the complaints are completely without merit and they will be dismissed.

There was a seven-fold increase in positive tweets about American Airlines in the first week of May after the airline started playing indie music to passengers as they board aircrafts. Was this the expected reaction?
I wasn’t surprised. When you do things that are different and well done, you get a nice response from your customers – particularly on social media.

We were looking to do something different with onboard music, compared to the old elevator music folks used to have. All the decisions we make feed into our attempt to make the company better, so we are growing and improving our product. That was one of the more tangible examples of a change made in the last few months.

You recently gave up the cash portion of your pay package for compensation that comes entirely from company stock. Why?
If we are going to ask our shareholders to be compensated on how our stock does, then I should be compensated the same way. So that was a message to our shareholders that we want our interests to be aligned.

The bigger message my move sends is that this industry has been transformed. In the past, no one would have been willing to do this, as the airline industry was so volatile and risky. But that is no longer the case. By doing this, I am telling investors I am confident American Airlines will be worth more in the future than it is today. 

The airline recently got flack from media outlets after an employee refused to provide a wheelchair to a cancer patient, which you later apologized for. How do you manage your reputation in instances like this?
Through our social media team, we are able to hear about complaints in real time and do our best to resolve the situation before they become larger than they should be.

Our social media team sits next to the same people who are accommodating passengers and dealing with weather situations, so they can respond in real time and provide feedback to our operations team. That has made a huge difference in our ability to provide customer service and it is something we are going to keep getting better at.

What does your PR function look like?
Elise Eberwein, EVP of people and communications, runs comms and HR and reports directly to me. Our comms team is an enormous part of the strategic leadership of the company and the success we have had.

We have 80 people on the team. Weber Shandwick is our AOR for crisis, and we have Joele Frank under contract. We recently hired Wagstaff Worldwide to help us with market-specific initiatives in Los Angeles.

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