One of the most powerful men in Charlotte will soon be moving from Arizona to Texas.
Doug Parker, US Airways chief executive since 2005, is set to head the new American Airlines. In 12 years, hes moved from running a struggling regional carrier based in Tempe, Ariz., to become the CEO of the nations largest airline, based in Fort Worth, Texas.
Parker, 51, is currently the longest-serving U.S. airline CEO. He first took the top job at America West in 2001 10 days before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Now, as head of the merged airline that will operate more than 90 percent of the daily flights at Charlotte Doulas International Airport, one of the regions biggest economic engines, Parker will continue to have substantial influence on the city.
Parker plans to visit Charlotte in the coming weeks, US Airways said Friday. He typically visits Charlotte about once a month for meetings with the airlines locally-based employees and local business leaders.
Weve got a great relationship with Doug Parker, said Natalie English, the Charlotte Chambers senior vice president for public policy. When hes in Charlotte, he makes a point of communicating with the Charlotte business community.
Parker has consistently talked up the benefits of Charlotte as a hub. With low operating costs, good weather and little congestion, its been a profitable source of growth for US Airways, and connecting US Airways passengers dominate the airports traffic. Parker and his executives have also praised Aviation Director Jerry Orr.
When asked Thursday whether the merger could risk Charlotte flights being cut by the new American Airlines, Parkers reply was curt. No, is the answer, he said.
The routes that we fly in and out of Charlotte today work primarily because of all of the feed in and out of Charlotte, which will remain, he said.
But changes are coming: The legislature is expected to consider a plan soon to convert the airport from a city department to an independent authority run by its own board of directors. And Orr, whos been aviation director since 1989, has said he expects to serve for only about another year.
US Airways leases for the airport facilities it uses run through 2016. In the next few years, the airport will have to negotiate new leases.
When it comes time to sit down, theyre going to have a lot of market power, Brookings Institution analyst Adie Tomer said of US Airways. Tomer told the Observer that Parker will be able to say: You need us more than we need you.
Past bumps, future challenges
His tenure hasnt always been smooth. Parker has struggled with the airlines unions for years over pay and work rules, especially with the pilots union. Workers have accused Parker of keeping US Airways wage levels at the lowest in the industry to maintain profitability, and theres even an anonymous website called Fire Doug Parker.
The merger offers Parker what is likely his best chance to successfully integrate the pilots union following his 2005 merger with US Airways. Unions from both companies have so far been supportive of Parker and the merger, but he still faces years of possible labor strife should he trip up when combining the work groups.
Parker also initiated a bruising and ultimately failed attempt to acquire Delta Air Lines and at times took scorn from other industry executives for US Airways, the fifth-biggest carrier and one which was sometimes seen as something of a runt in the industry. United Continental chief executive Jeff Smisek famously called US Airways the ugly girl of the aviation industry in 2010.
A former executive who worked for Parker for several years at both America West and US Airways said he is generally an approachable leader. At US Airways Tempe headquarters, Parker plays fantasy football and baseball with other employees and walks to a nearby Five Guys burger restaurant for lunch.
Hes hard to shake, hes pretty even-keeled, said the executive, who asked not to be named because he works for a rival airline. I once saw him angry at a shareholder meeting when a shareholder was haranguing him. That was the only time I ever saw him mad.
Parker has been a major advocate of new charges to customers such as baggage fees and extra charges for seats with more leg room. Hes said they help airlines cover costs and allow customers to pay only for what they use. But while the new fees have helped US Airways make hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue, theyve incensed passengers and consumer advocates.
Aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt said the next test for Parker will be his biggest yet. Kudos to Mr. Parker for figuring out a strategy and a way to act on it, he said. The question now is, OK, he got the airline. Can he execute on whats needed to turn a combined US Airways-American Airline into a successful carrier?
Parkers old colleague, Tom Horton, is currently chief executive of AMR Corp., Americans parent company. The two started their careers together as cubicle-mates at American Airlines. Horton will assume the title of nonexecutive chairman through mid-2014 when the companies combine, and Parker will become both chairman and CEO when Horton leaves.
Ive known Doug as a colleague and friend for more than 25 years and, as many of you know, hes a first-rate leader, Horton said last week.
Parker reminisced about working near Horton. I started my career straight out of school at American Airlines in a cubicle, he said. I could look out and see one another person, and it was Tom. I got through that, Parker joked.
After his stint at American, Parker climbed the ranks at Northwest Airlines and America West, a low-cost airline where he was named CEO in 2001.
America West almost went under after the 9/11 attacks as demand for air travel plummeted. Parker helped America West obtain a $429 million loan from the government, which, along with the layoffs of 2,000 employees and the closure of a hub in Columbus, Ohio, helped the carrier survive.
In 2005, after US Airways had filed for bankruptcy protection twice in two years, Parker engineered a merger of that carrier and America West. Parker and his management team, including second-in-command Scott Kirby, assumed the top management roles.
US Airways returned to profitability. Parker, a longtime advocate of more industry consolidation, pushed his carrier to acquire Delta Air Lines with a $9.8 billion bid that was ultimately rejected in 2007.
Hours after the bid was rejected, Parker was arrested in Scottsdale, Ariz., for driving under the influence. He had been at a golf tournament. Parker was ultimately fined and sentenced to a day in jail. After the arrest, Parker apologized to all US Airways employees in a letter, and the company said he was embarrassed beyond words and knows more is expected of him.
Two other unsuccessful merger attempts followed, both with United. Even though United chose to merge with Continental in 2010, Parker still called for more airline consolidation. He made no secret of his wish, saying repeatedly that there was one big deal left in the U.S. airline industry, and that deal should involve US Airways.
And while Horton resisted for months, Parker persisted, winning the support of unions and creditors and forcing Horton to the bargaining table.
Now Parker is CEO of the nations largest airline and will likely help determine the course of Charlottes airport for years to come. Hes said the new American will likely add flights to Charlotte Douglas.
English said shes hopeful hell one day decide to add more than flights to Charlotte.
We have routinely offered to help him move US Airways headquarters here, she said. In fact, wed be happy to help him move the merged companys headquarters here.
Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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