American Airlines Has Terrible Employee Morale. Its CEO Is Clueless Why.

An employee raised morale issues, and suggests that Delta employees are happier and take better care of customers.

Doug Parker responded that while he’s “not putting it all on this” he blamed the mechanics and summer operational performance for unhappy employees. Apparently he never read any of the employee surveys from before the mechanics’ work slowdown.

There is no doubt that what we asked people to do this summer left our team in a really difficult shape. I’ve tried as many times as I can to apologize as many times as I can because no one deserved to go through that. And it was no one’s issue, it wasn’t the flight atendants issue or a pilots issue or a res agents issue. It was an issue of us not being about to get a contract done with our [mechanics] and them wanting to send a message.

I just want to be candid about what it was. We literally started every day for months in the summer with more than twice as many aircraft out of service than we’d ever seen before and that means we’re starting the day cancelling 35 lines of flying and all that bad stuff happens in the summer.

…We cannot do that again. ..The number one objective for taking care of our team is go run a reliable airline. That’s not sufficient. There are many more things we need to do. But all the other things that we have been doing and will continue to do look to our team like just give me an end, let me fly my schedule, I’m really good at what I do but I can’t do this if the airplane’s not there when I show up. I can’t do t if the customers are all upset by the time they get on the aircraft.

We get it. Apologies again. Nothing to do with anything related to anything but what I described. Nothing that our team could have done about it. We can’t let it happen again. We won’t let it happen again. Our commitment to operation excellence is this. We are going to run an excellent airline in 2020.

I am confident we’ll do that with the plans we have in place. We’re doing it now. But if something unforeseen should come up like a couple years ago when the unfortunate Southwest accident led to all of us having to do checks on CFM56 engines in the middle of summer we tried to do those and still keep the schedule in place. We’re not going to do that again. If something unforeseen happens that takes the risk of our not having enough airplanes to start the day we’ll pull down the schedule. It’s a really painful thing to do, we all hate doing it, we’ve gotten pretty good at it now because of the MAX. That’s our commitment. We can’t do that again.

So anyway I know there’s more than just that but we have to go do that and I really do feel that while we were making progress in terms of bringing the teams together not to mention all of the flight attendants went through a really difficult year of change on the heels of the integration. …

I happen to believe, at least I’m really hopeful, the source of the emotion you just projected is related to circumstances that you rationally have interpreted as the company doesn’t understand what’s going on. I’d like you to try to understand that we do know what’s going on, we know the impact it had on you and we really do care.

Parker thinks the problem with employee morale stems from operational problems. If only they get the operation right then employees will be happy. However when the operation was better before 2019, employee morale was poor too.

He also regularly talks about ‘making culture a competitive advantage’ – odd for an airline with such a toxic culture – but the initiatives he points to hardly are even noticeable – rather than actually creating a culture where employees are motivated in pursuit of a common goal. Here’s what Parker touted to employees as 2019 accomplishments in this area.. bias training, a new company headquarters building, and profit sharing 1/8th the size of Delta’s.

What’s missing at American Airlines is leadership. It’s not clear to employees what the airline is trying o be – a low cost carrier chasing Spirit, or a premium carrier? And it’s not clear whether or why they should go out of their way to provide excellent service when they’re treated the same whether they do or not and they see employees shirk doing just as well as those who go the extra mile. Indeed, American wants brand champions who volunteer their time to do extra work to talk up how great the airline is – without knowing what the brand is they’re supposed to be advancing.

American surveyed employees in 2017 and found:

  • Only 41% of American Airlines employees believed that the airline’s management makes “the right decisions that take care of customers” and only 32% believed American’s leaders listen to and “seek to understand the frontline team member experience.”

  • Only 33% believed leadership makes “the right decisions that support” employees. Fewer than half believed they have “the flexibility to meet the needs of our customers who fly American” when things go wrong.

Subsequent survey results weren’t even released in as much detail, though we know that results were really bad. None of that had to do with American’s contract dispute with its mechanics. It has everything to do with decisions made by the leadership of the airline.

Indeed, employees remain up in arms about a new discipline system for taking earned sick leave that airline management imposed a year and a half ago that unions have been filing grievances over ever since and which employees asked Doug Parker about at the same session. They complain that taking sick time when sick risks their jobs, so employees are forced to work sick, and that they receive negative marks for taking accumulated sick time even when they wind up in the hospital. Parker professed to know nothing about it.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Hey Doug
    We AKA (Tulsa mechanics)
    Worked are ass of in Tulsa this summer, so when you talk about the mechanics be more specific,what an insult to Tulsa and the great people that keep American Airlines great, comments like this is another reason why you need to go,your absolutely clueless and aren’t even up to the facts and you run this company,what’s really sad is,I used to be proud to say I worked for AA,now I rarely ever let anyone know where I work that’s so sad,look in the mirror Doug and you’ll find out where the real problem lies

  2. The company has always been rotten from the top down. Tons of clueless and unqualified people in management who care nothing about their passengers or employees. The company is full of excellent skilled employees who get beaten down with micromanagement BS on a daily basis. Exceptional employees are neither recognized nor appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *