Skift Take

Drawing parallels with the 1990s internet boom may seem odd, but Doug Parker thinks history will repeat itself, and more relationship building on virtual meeting platforms will only encourage more meetings in person.

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The chairman and CEO of one of the world’s biggest airlines has brushed off the impact of virtual meetings, saying they will bring more people together.

Like many airline chiefs, Doug Parker is “bullish” on the future, particularly after a surge in demand for transatlantic flights after the travel ban lifted on Nov. 8. But American Airlines is poised to begin 2022 as a larger airline — despite labor woes.

Speaking at Skift Aviation Forum on Wednesday, Parker said business travel will return to 2019 levels, at some point.

Responding to Skift Airline Weekly Editor Madhu Unnikrishnan’s observation that his predecessor, Robert Crandall, noted in the 1990s that the internet made the world smaller, the current CEO said platforms like Zoom and Teams would have a similar effect.

The argument is: if the world is smaller, people will want to see each other more. Is history about to repeat itself?

“He was right. It makes connections easier, and over time more and more will want to get together. People will connect who wouldn’t do otherwise,” he said. “I’m bullish on business travel. Zoom or Teams aren’t going away, they’re huge advancements and we’re going to coexist.”

However, how business people travel will change, including the famed one-day trip. “We’re seeing new patterns. We could identify business travel on the travel pattern, but that’s not the case any more. It’s good, it flattens out the peaks, and allows for more types of travel.”

And for now small, meaning “nimble” companies without human resources departments that curb travel because their HQs are closed, were bouncing back compared to large corporations yet another “bullish indicator” for the CEO that business travel volumes would recover.

Operational Hiccups

But looking further ahead, with anticipated demand, is the airline ready to fly so many people considering its recent blip in October, Unnikrishnan asked. “That called into question whether you’d be ready,” he put to Parker.

“That was driven by weather,” he replied. “We’re hiring thousands of people as we ramp up the schedule. We’re well prepared.”

As an example, he recounted how only yesterday he attended the graduation of 95 flight attendants. Due to the pandemic, their training took a total of 606 days.

Unnikrishnan also referred to how other airlines have pointed out it’s tough finding positions at entry level positions. Is that the case at American?

“Less so for us, but for vendors that have lower rates,” he said. “But we’ve had no problem in the mainline workforce. We’ve had challenges with catering contracts, and jet fuel truck drivers, but they’re addressed.”

However, Parker said that “true entry level pilots” at some of its regional airline providers had been given incentives, due to the number of options those pilots had in front of them.

Once Thanksgiving is over, the American Airlines leader is hopeful he can pick up the carrier’s expansion plan from where it left off before the pandemic struck, including Africa.

“Clearly demand is incredibly low, but all the structural pieces of our operation that made sense before make sense now. Our expansion plans look much the same,” he said.

He’s also confident that alliances with JetBlue and Alaska Airlines will help grow the international network further, alongside partnerships with JAL and Qantas on the Asia side.

Parker is also looking forward to Europe, where he predicts a good transatlantic summer next year. “It will feel like 2019,” he said. “We’ll be flying all our planes — in fact we’ll be a slightly larger airline, if all our aircraft get delivered.”

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Tags: alaska airlines, american airlines, coronavirus, doug parker, jetblue airways, skift aviation forum 2021, skift live

Photo credit: American Airlines CEO Doug Parker predicts a strong transatlantic summer next year.

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