Leader of new American never planned to be a CEO

Posted Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The man who once said he never planned to be a CEO will be in charge of the world's largest airline.

Doug Parker, 51, who has led the campaign to merge US Airways with American Airlines, has been tapped to lead the combined company as chief executive officer.

AMR Corp. Chairman and CEO Tom Horton will become nonexecutive chairman.

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As the head of US Airways and previously America West, Parker has advocated for industry consolidation for years with failed attempts to buy Delta Air Lines and merge with United Airlines.

But with the American merger, Parker will get his chance to create the nation's pre-eminent airline, something he has spent more than a year campaigning for.

"We think we have an opportunity here to build the greatest airline in the world and restore American to the level that it was back when I worked there, when we were all so proud of the airline," Parker said in an interview last summer.

Parker began his career at American as a financial analyst in 1986, where he met his wife Gwen, then a flight attendant.

He has since worked at several airlines, including in executive positions at Northwest Airlines and America West.

At 39, he was named chief executive of America West, 10 days before the 9-11 attacks.

As planes flew empty for the next few months, Parker lobbied Congress for an airline bailout and loan guarantees to keep his airline aloft.

In 2005, he merged America West with US Airways, which was facing liquidation in its second bankruptcy.

"I was drawn to the challenge of taking what I'd learned and using it to build something new," Parker said in 2010 during a commencement address at his alma mater, Albion College in Michigan. "I never set out to be a CEO or anything close to it."

As CEO of US Airways, he has sought to create a corporate culture that is focused on the employees and the customers.

Parker says he tries to leave the corporate headquarters several times a month to talk to front-line employees to find out how the carrier is performing.

And like his mentor, Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher, Parker has a penchant for dressing up for Halloween.

This year, he danced Gangnam Style in a powder-blue tux jacket with Converse shoes as South Korean star Psy.

"He's got a good sense of humor that keeps him from sweating the small stuff, so to speak," Kelleher said during an interview last year. "He's really kind of self-effacing and not at all egotistical."

As the longest-serving chief executive in the industry, Parker has argued that it would be in better financial health if it had fewer airlines with larger networks.

A merger with American would put the combined carrier in the top spot, over United Continental and Delta, which merged with Northwest in 2007.

Although most unions at American and US Airways have approved temporary labor agreements in a memorandum of understanding, Parker faces the challenge of integrating the union workforces while also improving the operating performance and customer experience at the airline.

At US Airways, Parker has not been able to integrate the pilot groups, which have argued over seniority issues since America West and US Airways merged almost eight years ago.

But Wall Street seems to believe that Parker can overcome the labor obstacles and keep the new carrier profitable as American emerges from bankruptcy.

"US Airways CEO Doug Parker shepherded that airline out of bankruptcy, through a major merger that his company led, and all the way to strong revenue growth and convincing, sustainable profits which AMR can only dream about," said Vicki Bryan, a bond analyst at Gimme Credit.

"Mr. Parker also has accomplished more in a matter of months with his collaborative management style to smooth previously intractable labor problems with AMR's unions than AMR's management team did in a decade."

In April, Parker signed conditional agreements with American's unions that promised smaller employee cost cuts than the stand-alone restructuring plan that American had proposed to employees.

Since then, he has been relentless in trying to convince AMR creditors and bondholders that his plan to combine the carriers made the most financial sense.

"We have an idea here that can create a stronger airline, take care of all the employees and also take care of the creditors of American Airlines," Parker said last summer.

"It would create an airline that is stronger than American is today that flies to more places and allows the customers of American to fly to more markets than they can today."

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