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SXSW 2022: American Airlines CEO says the future of travel starts with tough conversations

CEO Doug Parker is retiring from American Airlines at the end of this month. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

After bearing witness to two of the most destructive events for aviation, 9/11 and the COVID-19 outbreak, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker has seen the best of days and the worst of days for air travel.

Parker sat down with Aviation Week executive editor Lee Ann Shay to chat about the recovery process for travel after the pandemic hit and the future of sustainable aviation at SXSW on Thursday morning.

Parker, who began working with American Airlines in1986, said since the pandemic shut down the demand for travel altogether, domestic travel has made a full recovery. In fact, Parker said three of the last five days were some of the highest traffic in the history of the airline.

“The demand for domestic travel is as strong as it’s ever been,” Parker said. “If you're traveling today, you're seeing full airplanes. Really, I can't remember a period of time when there was so much demand given the number of seats that are out there.”

Aviation progress isn’t just about finding sustainable fuel or electric jets, it’s about paving the way for a work environment to thrive in and having tough conversations of all types.

The number of passenger assaults on flight attendants during the pandemic was well-documented. While Parker said the number was going down, American Airlines has decided it will not serve alcohol as long as the mask mandate on planes is in effect.

“It’s going down but it’s still too high,” Parker said. “(It’s about) three people a day, including someone who punched one of our flight attendants and broke her nose. This is more about where we are as a country as it is versus anything else. If you do something like that you're never gonna fly American Airlines again.”

Parker shared an anecdote in which he said he was forced to fly Southwest Airlines, due to sold-out American flights, around the time of George Floyd’s murder. At the recommendation of a friend Parker was reading the book “White Fragility,” when a young Black flight attendant told him that she had been praying for her safety at work. She said seeing him take initiative to learn felt like the answer to her prayers.

Parker was in People Magazine the next day.

“It was incredibly impactful to me—it made a huge difference,” Parker said. “As I told her in (a) note, I'm never gonna forget that conversation and we're gonna do something about it. I'm gonna do what I can, as best as I can.”

Parker will retire from American Airlines come March 31. As one of the last things before he left, Parker oversaw severing all ties with Russia as American will no longer fly over Russian airspace in support of Ukraine.

“We immediately did everything we could and any relationships we have with Russia, we terminated,” Parker said. “We're working really hard to do everything we can to help.”


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