Across the Aisle from US Airways CEO Doug Parker on The Importance of Employee Communications (Part 1)

Last week, I had the chance to interview current US Airways CEO Doug Parker. As we all know, he’ll be running the new American Airlines when the merger closes at some point in the third quarter of this year. It ended up being a good 20 minute conversation, so I decided to split this into two parts. Today we’ll start with the piece on employee communication. That was clearly an important theme that came up time and time again at media day. Tomorrow we’ll get into more about important onboard product features, plans for Asia, and more.

Cranky: I was told originally I had like 10 minutes, so I thought I’d spend this whole time discussing the livery.
Doug Parker, US Airways CEO: [Big Laugh]
Cranky: I have no other questions.
Doug: You know, nobody’s asked about the livery today.
Cranky: That’s because everyone knows better by now.

Cranky: It’s always interesting to watch the progress [at Media Day] every year, but with US Airways, things are running well. The things you said you’d focus on with reliability, convenience, and appearance are working well. But now it’s a completely different story with American because it’s a completely different kind of airline. When you’re approaching this, there’s so much to consider around network, employees… how do you even decide where to focus your time?

Doug: Mine?

Cranky: Yeah, yours specifically

Doug: My time is and has to be focused mostly on employee communication. That’s where I’ve gotta be spending my time. I can do some of that now, but I can’t go traveling around the American system; though I guess I could if I asked. But it’s less effective anyway since we’re two separate airlines. The right thing to do is to go around and let people know what’s going on. One it’s the right thing to do and two, it’s an easy thing to do because we have the right people doing all this.

So much of this is just trying to learn it all. One of the things, having done this before now, we have the ability now to look back and the reality is I don’t remember what happened in the first 6 months exactly in the US Airways/America West deal. At the time we were thinking, “we have to get this done tomorrow and this done tomorrow and we’ll do all those things.” But the real answer is that’ll pass. And you can get yourself so focused on that that you forget about the longer term. The integration has to get done and it will get done, but that’s not the big picture. The big picture is we’re going to go build this airline and it’s gonna take time to do it right. It’s going to be something that lasts forever, not for 6 months. So that’s my focus.

Cranky: When you’re talking about employee communications, it’s a tall task. Maybe not the nuts and bolts of it, but having an impact on the employees. I’ve had several flights on American lately, and have had some great crews, but most felt fairly indifferent about this. I guess they’ve gotten beyond anger. If it’s anger, that’s almost easier to deal with. It’s some kind of emotion.

Doug: [Laughs]

Cranky: So how do you reach those people?

Doug: You gotta figure a way to communicate with them. It’s hard of course, because you can’t fly on every airplane. What I can tell you is my experience flying around has been dramatically different than that. It may just be that I’ve had different crews.

Cranky: You’re a different person…

Doug: It may just be I haven’t had the same crews, but the people I’ve flown with have been anything but indifferent, they’ve been over-the-top excited. So that’s great, but it’s also something we have to be cognizant of. Because if we don’t do anything about it, it could be worse than indifference. It could be people were so excited and nothing changed. I worry as much about that as I do about the indifference. But anyway, I haven’t experienced [indifference]. And what that says to me is to the extent we can communicate, that people really are excited and want to be excited. But it gets to the same question, how do you get to 100,000 people?

So Michelle [Mohr, Director of Communications at US Airways, who was in the room] and people like her are really good at this. I can tell you what we do here has been phenomenally successful with Crew News. We go every month like clockwork and we do a pilot and flight attendant session. They’re in training so they have a free hour. You spend 10 minutes talking about the airline and spend 15 minutes taking questions and you film it, so there it is.

Michelle Mohr, Direct or Corp Comm for US Airways: We get 2,000 hits a month.

Doug: Two thousand hits a month at US Airways. It’s a fantastic communication vehicle. We do things like that. It’s not perfect, but it works well. The people who want to know what’s going on can find a way to figure out what’s going on.

And the other thing is it can’t all be me. We have to have a team in place – we have that now at US Airways. The reason we don’t have to have everybody tune into Crew News is because they hear this stuff from their own supervisors and Vice Presidents. We have officers that know a big part of their job is showing up and going to talk to their people. Every week we’re gonna ask them, who’d you talk to this week?

Cranky: And when are we going to see those people [in the new American]? Technically I believe you’re the only employee of the new airline.

Doug: Well, I’m not an employee. I’m an employee of US Airways and not American Airlines.

Cranky: Yeah, but you are the only announced employee, so when are we going to see more officers?

Doug: It’ll be before we close, I know that. And then the question is when before we close. Should we do something sooner than that? One one hand, we say “well yeah, the uncertainty is not good.” So once we know the right answer, we should get on with it. And I think that’s the right answer. What you don’t want to do is rush the decision. I have gone and looked at benchmarks at the other airlines — United/Continental and Delta/Northwest — and it’s about 3 months after the announcement So for us, that would be May 14. Sometime around there would be the earliest.

Cranky: I hear a lot of uncertainty on both sides. On the US Airways side it’s “will I have a job, and oh wait, do I have to go to Dallas?” while on the American side it’s “Is this a takeover”? I know there’s been a lot of discussion about how it’s not that way, but you can understand how on the American side, it’s hard to not to at least see it that way. So I think that’s the benefit [of announcing earlier].

Doug: Yeah, I know. I acknowledge there will be some value in announcing the team, but we won’t do it if we’re not ready.

Cranky: But when it does happen, I assume we’ll see people from both sides as a part of that team.

Doug: Oh yeah, it’ll be a mixture of both sides.

Come back tomorrow for the second part of the interview where we talk about the onboard product features that matter most, what to do in Asia, and more.

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