American Airlines CEO Doug Parker is stepping down next year after two decades running airlines and will be succeeded by the carrier’s president, Robert Isom, on March 31, the company announced Tuesday.
Parker’s retirement as CEO of the largest U.S. airline is the latest in a wave of leadership changes at the country’s carriers, and the new executives are tasked with driving carriers’ recovery from the Covid pandemic.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly will step down in February, handing the reins to another longtime executive, Bob Jordan, in February. Scott Kirby, who was fired as president of American in 2016, jumped to United Airlines and became that carrier’s CEO in May 2020.
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,” Parker said in a note to staff Tuesday.
American’s shares were up more than 2% in morning trading, slightly more than 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, with thousands of jobs at risk.
“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, working closely with airline CEOs. “The industry is standing today and able to lift us out of the biggest crisis in aviation history.”
Parker 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. airline. He also oversaw expansion of international and domestic partnerships, including with Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways.
Fort Worth, Texas-based American has more than 100,000 employees.
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 implement travel restrictions and would-be customers 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 shift.
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, he oversaw the merger of America West with a bankrupt US Airways, creating the fifth-largest carrier in the country. Parker ran the new US Airways as CEO.
Following the Great Recession that ended in 2009, airlines were saddled with massive debts and high legacy costs, spurring 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 US 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.