Like most airline employees, Dec Lee has endured through his share of turmoil over his career, as the industry careened between mergers and bankruptcies.
Now, the new leader of American Airlines’ hub at Charlotte Douglas International Airport is hoping to do something different: Invest, both in employees and the airport.
“We’re really focused right now on our employees,” said Lee. “We’ve had all these years of bankruptcies and things like that.
“The employees have borne the brunt of bad things that happened in the industry.”
He’s been in his new role “with the training wheels off” since June. A native of Great Britain, he started as a mechanic in the Royal Air Force, and held management jobs at Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines. He was most recently American Airlines’ vice president of engineering, quality and training.
$417Average roundtrip domestic fare at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, first quarter 2017.
Local leaders often tout Charlotte’s airport hub – far larger than is typical for a market this size – as one of the city’s crown jewels for attracting and keeping businesses. And American Airlines has an outsized role in that, accounting for the vast majority of traffic at the hub.
“American is very committed to Charlotte,” said Lee, in his office tucked away deep inside Charlotte Douglas, above the passenger terminal. “We’re going to create a world-class airport, with a world-class customer experience.”
Longtime Charlotte hub vice president Terri Pope retired in June after 17 years at her post, which saw the Sept. 11 attacks, US Airways’ twin bankruptcies, the US Airways-America West merger and the mega-deal between US Airways and American Airlines in 2013.
American Airlines accounts for more than 90 percent of the daily flights at Charlotte Douglas, which is its second-busiest hub, behind Dallas/Fort Worth. Charlotte is by far the most dependent on a single carrier among major hubs and large cities. Most of the passengers at Charlotte Douglas – about 80 percent – are switching from one flight to another, rather than starting or stopping their trip at Charlotte.
American’s profit for 2016 totaled $2.7 billion, following a $7.6 billion profit in 2015.
“We’re in a post-bankruptcy world, where we actually have money to invest in the business,” said Lee.
Lee said American Airlines has started taking steps to invest more in the employees at Charlotte Douglas, such as the gate agents and mechanics who make the operation work. Salaries have been increased, up to 20 percent for some work groups, he said, and American Airlines is spending more on the facilities employees use. That includes renovating break rooms, replacing worn furnishings and even simple things like providing ice machines for the workers who spend most of their time on the hot tarmac servicing planes.
“We’ve been investing millions of dollars,” said Lee, “in things we, historically, maybe wouldn’t have.”
“Our employees are going to be working in a much more modern and efficient environment,” said Lee, who said management has been gathering “frustration lists” of problems to address. “We treat them better, they treat our customers better.”
American extended its lease at Charlotte Douglas for 10 years in 2016, to 2026. The airport is owned and operated by the city of Charlotte as a self-funding enterprise, paid for largely with airline fees, concessions sales, parking fees and federal grants.
In addition to the investments from American Airlines, Charlotte Douglas is spending hundreds of millions on a new terminal roadway, nine new gates near Concourse A and a terminal expansion, among other programs. And the Federal Aviation Administration is building a new tower, now visible all the way from uptown, to replace the current, outdated air traffic control facility.
11,000American Airlines employees based in Charlotte
677Average daily flights operated by American Airlines at Charlotte Douglas
Lee said that investment is sorely needed.
“One of our bigger challenges here is we’re outgrowing the airport fairly quickly,” said Lee. “We have a couple times a day here where we’re full.”
The average price for a round trip, domestic flight from Charlotte Douglas was $417 in the first quarter this year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That’s almost 20 percent higher than airports with similar numbers of local passengers.
About 85 percent of American Airlines flights arrived at Charlotte on time over the year ending in June, according to the DOT. That’s better than the national average of about 80 percent on-time, but still means that more than one out of every 10 American Airlines flights at Charlotte Douglas was delayed.
Lee said American Airlines will invest more in improvements for customers as well, and said the airline is seeing payoffs in fewer lost pieces of baggage, for example. A new test program for managing airspace in conjunction with NASA should help reduce delays, Lee said, and all of the customer-facing employees at Charlotte Douglas have been retrained over the past year.
One thing he doesn’t expect to see soon, though: A surge in new international flights from Charlotte Douglas. American Airlines announced a crop of new European flights Wednesday from its hubs in Chicago and Philadelphia, but not Charlotte. Lee said the high percentage of transferring passengers, rather than people starting their trips in Charlotte, makes that less likely for now.
“Those cities that have a lot of international flying also have a lot of origination traffic that comes from those cities,” said Lee. “I think we probably need to see more growth in origination traffic.”