PROFILE: Travelocity's Comeaux strives to be part of the action

Whether working through labor strikes or the fear most Americans had of travel after 9/11, Al Comeaux, now Travelocity's VP of PR, has always taken a courageous comms approach.

Whether working through labor strikes or the fear most Americans had of travel after 9/11, Al Comeaux, now Travelocity's VP of PR, has always taken a courageous comms approach.

Al Comeaux, Travelocity's VP of PR, was trained as a journalist, but he liked PR better. "PR is more fun than journalism because you aren't on the sidelines," he says. "You're making things happen. You're a part of the action - good or bad." Comeaux has seen lots of action - labor union strikes, plane crashes, bankruptcy, a jailed employer. Though his career began in politics, he says he had jet fuel in his blood and went to work for American Airlines, helping to manage a "disastrous" flight attendant strike and a historic pilot strike - the first to be stopped by presidential intervention. Jane Allen, former VP of employee relations and chief labor negotiator at American, knew Comeaux would have a great career. "He's gutsy and has a lot of integrity," she says. "Through very difficult labor negotiations, you must have courage to really understand what is going on and to answer very, very tough questions. He had everything it was going to take to be terrific." Comeaux currently oversees Travelocity's in-house team of eight, which works closely with Vollmer PR. The company pioneered online travel and is now the fifth-largest US travel agency. Comeaux is most proud of its resource program, which he conceived and put in place with his team. It provides travel-related information to consumers and journalists, including a live daily CNN spot called "Eye on the Sky" and columns by editor-at-large Amy Ziff. "Being trained as a journalist, my biggest concern was being able to maintain integrity," Ziff says. "Al has great understanding of good journalistic process and a great love of it and the media. There's never been a time when I've said, 'Can I say this?' and he's said, 'No.' He pushes me to carry things further." The resource program initially met with internal resistance because it reports on sensitive subjects, such as SARS and travel delays. Comeaux argued that part of Travelocity's mission is to explain travel. The program has become a gold mine for media coverage and has helped the company secure its reputation as a travel authority. "People know there are problems in travel," says Comeaux. "It's about who's going to help them." After 9/11, Travelocity had no ad money, so it used PR to educate people about the new realities of travel. "We were the only place to have that kind of information," Comeaux says. "Journalists wouldn't give us credit if we were simply promoting travel and Travelocity all the time. It's a different approach to getting your voice out. Travel is complicated. People respect us for talking straight with them." "[Al] is fearless, and I say that with the utmost admiration," says Allen, who is currently United Airlines' SVP, on-board services. "He always looked at where we were headed overall and realized that communications was a part of that, but not driving it. You don't find that often." Comeaux credits Allen with teaching him about leadership. "She taught me a lot about integrity as it relates to managing people, and that action is 90% of communications," he says. "There have been times when people have said, 'Al, we're getting set to do this. Can you spin it to make it look good [internally]?' Staffers are smarter than that. People think they can pull one over on employees - labor unions took full advantage of it. It's your actions that are important. If they are out of line, do not expect successful communications." In part, it was Comeaux's success in managing challenges that led American to put him in charge of its European PR - the biggest challenge of his career. "I got the job because I told my boss if I went I wouldn't have any idea what I was doing," he says. "There was so much to learn, and I knew that the job needed somebody who was willing to learn. Americans tend to come in and tell people how things work, based on their limited knowledge, and fail. I had to be very humble and ask a lot of questions." Allen says Comeaux did "exceedingly" well in Europe. "He works hard and does his homework, but he's got this intuition, and that adds magic," she says. Travelocity CEO Michelle Peluso considers Comeaux a "thought partner," and she also comments about his intuition. "He's incredibly intuitive," she says. "It makes him great in PR and a huge, valuable asset for me." Growing up in Lafayette, LA, Comeaux thought he'd run for office or help politicians. He enjoyed learning more about public affairs through studying journalism at Louisiana State University. Though he'd won a William Hearst national writing award for an investigative story on steroids and was admitted to law school, he moved to Washington, DC, after college to become a press secretary. "I almost got a job with one congressman," he says. "When I didn't, I asked them who they hired and where he worked before, and I took his job." It was a press secretary position for the congressional delegate from American Samoa, and the job gave Comeaux a lesson in crisis management when his boss pleaded guilty to payroll corruption and was jailed. Then he worked for Conway & Co., a DC firm that represented Pan Am, Trump Shuttle, and the bankrupt Eastern Airlines. He was fascinated by the intricacy of the travel industry and realized that his heart was not in the agency job while working on a railroad union account. "People in DC had a way of rationalizing working for things they didn't believe in," Comeaux says. "I couldn't." The experience helped get him a job with the labor-troubled American, where he met his wife, Katie, a financial manager for the airline. They live together in Dallas and travel for fun about once a month. Comeaux feels fortunate to work in an industry that he thinks is fun. He clearly admires and enjoys working with his team and Peluso, who he says understands that the company's actions are crucial to communications. "He won't let me make a decision that might be good in the short term, but not in the long run," Peluso says. "What I like about Al is he's in the boat. He's not sitting back saying, 'Your boat is tilting.' He's in the boat with you." -------- Al Comeaux June 2000-present VP of PR, Travelocity, Southlake, TX June 1998-June 2000 PR director, American Airlines European Division, London May 1995-June 1998 PR manager, American Airlines, Ft. Worth, TX August 1992-May 1995 Senior representative, corporate comms, American Airlines, Ft. Worth, TX January 1989-August 1992 AE, Conway & Co., Washington June 1987-December 1988 Press sec., Rep. F.I. Sunia, Washington

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