25 Years in the Airline Business

On September 10, 1984, Linda drove me to Republic Airlines (it was the first job I could not access via public transit, and I didn’t buy a car until the following weekend). I woke up this morning, 25 years later, in the same business. A long time.

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A quarter-century later, here are ten things I know about the business and my decision to remain in it:

1. That my original “two tests” were right on; after I finished business school, my two tests for where to go to work were 1) the job had to be geographical, to use my background; and 2) the job had to be complex. The airline business has met both tests every day.

2. That our mission is not air transportation. It is getting people together quickly, safely, and reliably. As I often describe in my speeches and lectures, we find enormous joy in keeping promises: to the businesswoman who said she’d be home for her daughter’s 7 p.m. basketball game; to transport a family to a week’s vacation in Hawaii, and back home, in the time it took to get there only 50 years ago; and, best, of all, to facilitate hugs between grandparents and grandchildren, between old friends, between lovers, and many, many other people.

3. That we’re able to do all this at prices far lower than in the past is truly remarkable. These 25 years have seen the democratization of air travel, and putting our service within reach of nearly everyone makes me happy and proud. In a land that prides itself on democracy, variously defined, that is a stunning achievement.

4. That I’ve been lucky to have worked with mentors at three airlines, old hands who have helped make sense of the business and helped me move forward in it: Jim Giancola at Republic; Arnold Grossman at Republic, then American; and Bob Crandall, Bob Baker, and Jane Allen, at American. I should also mention Malcolm Noden, a former BOAC agent then Cornell professor, who propelled me into the classroom to share my knowledge with others.

5. That beyond those pivotal folk are hundreds of colleagues, in the next office and around the world, who have made these great places to work. Belonging is a powerful human need, and from 9/10/84 I have always felt deeply that I was “on the team.” I thank all who have welcomed me to the team bench, provided support during the many crises (the anniversary of September 11 is tomorrow), and celebrated some wins.

6. That change is good. About a decade ago, I began to describe ours as a business where more happens in a month than happens at other big firms in a whole year. To embrace that amount of change helps us in other parts of our lives, and to better understand the world.

7. That it has been a privilege to work for honorable companies in a time when corporate dishonor seems to be the rule. The high standards of the airline business derive from an unwavering commitment to precise consistency in operations; from the pivotal influence of old chiefs like C.R. Smith and new ones like Gerard Arpey; and from eighty years of intrusive federal regulation – it has been way excessive, but it has also nurtured our impulse to do the right thing.

8. That airline managerial culture, while filled with many positive elements, is also laden with all sorts of old baggage. Although losing suitcases is generally bad, we need to lose that bad old baggage. Our collective inability to greatly reduce tarmac delays is a perfect contemporary example.

9. That an industry that has become indispensible to the way we live remains on very wobbly foundations. We have got to find a way to steady that base, to generate the consistent earnings that will make it possible to keep the promises to all our stakeholders.

10. That this morning, and every morning for 25 years, even on September 12, 2001, I woke up excited about going to work. I am a lucky person.

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