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American Airlines CEO Doug Parker to retire, after 20 years at helm

Parker is the longest-serving chief executive of a major U.S. airline.
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker And Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Hold Event Celebrating Opening Of New Gates At O'Hare Airport
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker during the opening of five new gates at O'Hare International Airport on May 11, 2018 in Chicago.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker is stepping down next year after two decades running airlines and will be replaced by the carrier’s president, Robert Isom, on March 31, the company announced Tuesday.

It’s the second leadership change for a major airline set for next year. The new CEOs will be tasked with driving airlines’ recovery from the Covid pandemic’s toll. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly will step down in February, handing the reins to another long-time executive, Bob Jordan, in February.

Parker will continue as chairman of American’s board.

“It likely would have happened sooner, but the global pandemic — and the devastating impact it had on our industry — delayed those plans,” Doug Parker said in a note to staff on Tuesday.

American’s shares were up more than 3 percent in premarket trading, along with other airlines.

Parker’s career as an airline CEO spans 20 years, bookended by two crises: 9/11 and the Covid pandemic. In the latter, Parker helped win $54 billion in federal aid to cover payroll expenses.

“No other CEO worked as hard, spent as much time with Congress or the administration, or felt the urgency of keeping people connected to our jobs — not once, but three times,” wrote Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the largest union of cabin crew members, who pushed for the aid package. “The industry is standing today and able to lift us out of the biggest crisis in aviation history.”

Parker first became CEO of America West less than two weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and later oversaw two mergers — with US Airways and American Airlines, the tail-end of a wave of consolidation among U.S. carriers that propelled American to become the largest U.S. carrier.

Parker first became CEO of America West less than two weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Isom, who has a three-decade career in aviation, will become CEO of an airline that is still losing money as it tries to rebuild a business that collapsed during the pandemic. In the first three quarters of 2021, American has lost almost $4.8 billion after losing $9.5 billion last year when Covid forced countries around the world to ban flights and millions of would be travelers avoided taking flights. 

“Over the last several years, our airline and our industry have gone through a period of transformative change. And with change comes opportunity,” Isom said in a news release announcing the leadership change.

For Parker and Isom, the transition is the latest move in two careers that have been connected for more than 20 years, stretching back to their days at America West in the mid 1990s.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, while many carriers struggled to rebound, Parker saw the challenging environment as the right opportunity for consolidation. In 2005, Parker oversaw the merger of America West with a bankrupt U.S. Airways, creating the fifth-largest carrier in the country. Parker ran the new U.S. Airways as CEO.

Following the Great Recession that ended in 2009, airlines that were saddled with massive debts and high legacy costs spurred a series of bankruptcies and another round of mergers. Once again, Parker saw a rare opportunity to create a larger airline with the size and scale he could never achieve at US Airways.

This time, the target was American, which had tumbled into bankruptcy in 2011. Parker engineered a merger between U.S. Airways and a bankrupt American, creating the largest airline in the world when American emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013. Once again Parker was CEO, while Isom oversaw the integration of the two carriers as chief operating officer.