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 »

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  1. We all know people take sick days here and there though they are’nt really sick, sure.
    But – to actually get a “discipline mark” if you can show proof you’re indeed sick is really dirty, and not smart.
    You don’t want sick people showing up to work. Period. It’s bad for everyone.

  2. parker (along with most large corporations CEOs in this country) is living example of trump’s America.

    Why the surprise?

  3. Sad State I assume you’re of the bitter ones that can’t believe that Hillary did not win, so be it.

    HOWEVER that has nothing to do with Parker and his inability to manage AA. It’s sad to see a once great carrier continue to sink lower and lower. SO Gary tell me why the shareholders of AA have not fired him? That really is the question

  4. I’m assuming that if surveyed the morale of AA’s customers (aka the ‘self loading freight’) would be equally poor, but if there’s one thing we know Discount Dougie truly doesn’t care about it’s the customers.

  5. I think the point is the negative & toxic culture that our leaders of industry and government have created is turning us all into miserable creatures. That is why it is so unique to have a company like Delta buck the immense pressures.

  6. When you put out a terrible product, see Project Oasis as exhibit A, your employees don’t want to get the negative kickback from customers about being jammed into smaller seats for hours at a time. Seat densification may look good to sell more seats but they are terrible seats and the product just sucks. They need to reverse course on Project Oasis and get the people who implemented this away from running the company.

  7. Parker brought the tonic culture when he came on the property when he disrespected the retirees. The mechanic and ramp workers have been without a contract for over 4 years. The pilots and flight attendants are without a current contract. The pilots will be picketing at DFW on Wednesday 1/29). The board of directors need to wake up and fire Parker!

  8. @nathan Speak for yourself. Life is great for most Americans and most American companies. Like Delta. WN is thriving too, btw.

    AA sucks so bad because Parker is a fool.

  9. Dude26, not to mention, if you call in sick during a holiday period you get 2 points against you, but if you WORK during that period you only get 1 credit.. your starting off with two steps back, one step forward…

  10. John C,
    don’t forget he said it’s “.. “It’s just not the right way to pay 100,000 employees that don’t have that much impact on the daily profits.”
    talk about a slap in the face.

  11. Delthater
    maybe you should take your own advise and speak for YOURself..
    this is not a place for political discussion, but you don’t know how MOST americans are doing, and you don’t know (but should) that ,yes ,American companies are doing great because of policies that FAVOR the rich and big corporations, at the expense of the people.

  12. A company that doesn’t treat its employees well digs itself a deep hole. If management truly believes there is no problem, they are in serious trouble.

    And once a company gets a certain reputation, the problem goes beyond management to the employees. Do you honestly think AA gets the best applicants? No, the best people are going to want to work where the pay and treatment is best and that will be Delta and Southwest or a few of the foreign airlines.

    Also what happens to the best people in the company? Well, they see how things are going and then exit to somewhere they get paid more, or treated better or don’t have to deal with all of the issues a bad company has to deal with.

    Becomes a vicious cycle.

    And management keeps finding new things to blame problems on – mechanics, operational issues, 737Max, etc. If you are constantly blaming others for your problems, you need to take a step back and look in the mirror to find the main problem.

  13. Flew SJC ORD in F. Breakfast was literally inedible. I for medical reasons need to eat every 3-4 hours and so take my own stash of food. Now I know I cannot fly long flights with AA for medical reasons.

  14. What can we expect… They did away with the entire Home Base Res Team… moving backwards much? Everyone! even countries are implementing HomeBase work. What Next?

  15. Gary —

    Legitimate question: can you write a post explaining, in detail, how you would fix things if you were CEO? It’s truly hard to trust your insight when posts like these just offer complaints without any solutions. Consider the following:

    -How do you define employee happiness? If an employee group claims to be unhappy, is that automatically Doug Parker’s fault? Or is the union saying that in an attempt to get more money? Not saying that it’s one or the other, but isn’t this distinction something to keep in mind? And have you ever spoken with non-union employees to get their opinions? They matter too, so don’t forget about them (though I know front-line jobs can be emotionally a lot harder).
    -When you bring up Spirit/Frontier and how AA can’t decide if they’re a premium airline or head-to-head competitors with them, isn’t that reality these days? Many people expect airlines to be everything to everyone, and many people will simply book the cheapest ticket. In that regard, densification is necessary, right?
    -From a business standpoint, what does Delta do to have scaled increased revenue? Do their routes have less competition with LCCs, or what else? Furthermore, many people say that DL has a premium product over UA and AA which allows higher revenues. That may be true (you can comment on that), but is that a market segmentation problem? I.e. there’s only enough demand to cover that level of service/pricing with DL but not with others. I’m thinking of the same reason why there’s no one else who has tried to copy Southwest’s business model.

    Just some food for thought, and if you want to restore my confidence in you as a “travel expert,” it’d be nice to see some answers.

  16. Overall American Airlines — in my experience — lacks any kind of clarity about what is going on with each flight. For the last four years every time I’ve flown — usually in domestic First — the boarding and service aspect has been either a mad jumble or bored, impatient flight attendants radiating disdain to customers. Usually it is a mixture of the two: disarray and disdain.
    Doug, it ain’t that hard. Make some decisions and quit trying to game the market. Clean house. Get some order and structure. Discipline the deliberate obstructionists; reward good efforts. For heaven’s sake make UNcomplicating the whole process a priority.
    Example: that ‘we’re not working until the plane pushes back’ is an idiotic idea. Flight attendants are the front line of the airline. They communicate their bitterness loud and clear. How stupid is that?
    Enough with the apologies and excuses and attempted “explanations.” You yourself recognize those have not worked.

  17. @Oops – I have written extensively on what I would do differently at AA in terms of providing a clear vision to employees, defining who the customer is and what product they’re trying to deliver, and outlining a list of changes that make strong sense for the airline.

  18. Replying to Oops and speaking as an AA employee (though only for myself-)

    When you ask “How do you define employee happiness? If an employee group claims to be unhappy, is that automatically Doug Parker’s fault?” IMO, It’s not all Dougies fault, Its the entire senior management and boards fault. I don’t endorse much at all of what management decisions are made regarding passengers or employees, and when you don’t really support or feel supported your leadership, it’s hard to be happy. The strife and bickering is not mainly at a frontline level, or lower or middle management level, It is based upon what SVPs and above are doing to drive this company into the ground.

    When you ask “When you bring up Spirit/Frontier and how AA can’t decide if they’re a premium airline or head-to-head competitors with them, isn’t that reality these days?” This is one of my biggest hot buttons. My personal opinion is ” Marriott and the Ritz Carlton aren’t worried about who’s spending the night at a Days Inn.” Now that’s painting with a broad brush, But I hope you see what I’m trying to get at. Quit telling me how important your 100 segment a year flyers are when your chasing flies with a rolled up newspaper. The company only pays lip service to loyalty. The only loyalty is to shareholders, and they aren’t getting much of their moneys worth these days either.. Just my opinions.

  19. As a mechanic at AA for 30 years what I can say is Parker took home over 30 million dollars the first few months of the year.Him and Isom have no problem taking millions off the back of the workers. But afford the workers who bust their butts everyday do he can take large sums of money a few times a year heck no he won’t give any thanks or appreciation to his employees. Just corporate greed. God bless America

  20. Gary,
    in interest of time and convenience, can you share all of the links with the forum.

    and to follow up on Oops, I don’t believe you addressed all of his questions specifically.

    Cassandra, if it was as simple as just firing bad apples it should have been done long ago. I am sure the union rules make it very hard to do so but I agree with you that those bitter ones need to go. They are so bitter that nothing under any circumstances would change their attitude. Their bitterness is cast in concrete.

  21. Makes me glad I bolted for United. And I live in Dallas. Hard to avoid AA, but I manage to do so 80% of the time, even if it means a connection. The travel experience past 2 years as UA 1K much better than my time as 3+MM ExPlat at AA. Sad, but true.

  22. Businesses are less likely to trust their own employees these days…I need a rest for my keyboard and asked HR to get me one. The response? Bring in a Dr note that you need one and we’ll get it for you. My copay is more than if I just go buy the dumb thing myself. So I lumber along without it, just wait for the day that I can’t type and am out for weeks after a surgery.

    AA seems to have similar issues, they haven’t figured out how to trust their employees to work hard and get a good job done. DL seems to recognize that a lump profit sharing payment yearly beats a higher salary/hourly amount.

    Companies don’t make sense at all anymore…

  23. A company that doesn’t treat its employees well digs itself a deep hole. If management truly believes there is no problem, they are in serious trouble.

  24. Mr. Parker is out of touch over in the crystal palace he built for himself and his pals…just wondering when the BOD will wake up and serve all of Team Tempe and the cheap LCC ideas packing. It cannot happen soon enough.

  25. What a wonderful article about company morale by deflecting the real issues off of leadership on to others we can pass it on to.

  26. @Colby:
    I did not mention politics. I mentioned economics. There is a difference. But continue to spew the rhetoric of “Bad Corporate America”

  27. I’m going to do something very wrong and generalize many factors at AA in the hopes of proving my subjective opinion.

    Parker and the America West penny-pincher team have a nickel-and-dime approach to business. It seems their focus and priority is to compete with Spirit or Frontier. This is simplified but possible.

    AA employees have pride. They know they are the biggest airline in the world. Morale has been bad for a long time, and I think the staff do not feel that their work is valued by going after Spirit or Frontier. I know there are many reasons for the employees to be unhappy but I’m generalizing here. But simply – they are tired of working under a nickel-and-dime environment.

    Shareholders care about shareholder interests. That’s it. Shareholders often reward mgmt that tears apart companies instead of building them up. Cannot live entirely by shareholder approval.

    Add all three factors together and you have AA as a company today.

    But if management decided to chase Delta and Emirates competitively and moved to make changes that would address employees’ pride and respect, things could shift.

    Parker and team don’t know and don’t care about this. They can only relate to a nickel-and-dime approach and that’s why AA is where it’s at.

    At their essence, people don’t change unless they have a reason or need to. The AA mgmt won’t change. Ever.

    There is a need to replace the Exec mgmt and possibly the Board. Won’t happen at all because it should’ve already happened at least 2 years ago.

    AA will need to bottom out before changing direction. It won’t voluntarily change because mgmt doesn’t know how to.

    Hey UA enthusiasts – think this won’t ever happen to you? You’ve already been Kirbyed and the writing is in the wall. This will be you in 1-2 years, but probably not as bad.

    Sorry for the naïveté but AA’s morale problem is directly tied to the incompetence of its mgmt.

  28. Reality check: the biggest winners from the US Airways — American Airlines merger are the employees. Their salaries have skyrocketed. In any normal business, this would cause morale to soar. Indeed, despite Gary’s constant harping on it, morale isn’t particularly problematic at AA. And there is real factual EVIDENCE of this. People leave companies with bad morale. AA’s current problem is that more employees than ever want to stay. That said, all unionized US airlines always suffer from morale issues, some more than others. The leading cause of this is certainly the unionization of professional employees which, in America, is allowed in very few industries other than airlines. It’s a horrible system for both labor and management as it inevitably breeds conflict and mistrust. Parker has worked hard to heel these decades of mistrust. His successor will probably work hard too. No one is likely to succeed in this effort. It would be the equivalent of getting most Post Office employees psyched to assist you. End of reality check.

  29. Parker is such a joke and totally clueless. I will cherish the day he finally leaves and the real management can rescue this once great airline.

  30. Dont forget about the regional. For years (American Eagle) this comp. is been corporate bulling by AA. the worst pay, half what AA earns, in short words , american employees have it all in compare to Eagle employees. Compare the contracts and you will see…
    …who said size dont matter.

  31. Interesting discussion. I basically agree with Gary, lament AA’s leadership and am sympathetic to the employees’ frustration with Parker. But didn’t the employees, or at least certain AA unions, help bring this on themselves by backing Parker in his takeover bid?

  32. These are corporate raiders who are robbing the passengers and employees with a piss poor service and who will soon sail off into the sunset with millions. Stay tuned

  33. Doug is the perfect candidate for a job in the Trump administration. He would fit right in with his blind obedience to himself and ignoring the obvious. They call that oblivious.

  34. There are WAY TOO many Old people at AA. Flight Attendants and check in people who have not realized that they should retire. Try and be a 20 or 30 yr old and need a job but can not get one because many people do not want or can not retire because they never planned for retirement. The younger employee is not happy because they do not get the same benefits as the grandparents did …. but they do half the work and spend more time on their phones then actually working.

  35. @Cassandra… Really? From my understanding flight attendants Do Not get paid until the plane pushes back from the gate. I also understand they clock in 11/2 or 1 hour before their flight in uniform before they arrive to the plane and serve us First or Business Class cocktails Without Pay!! That right there is modern day slavery! Do you show up for work and work for free? Even on salary, I’m sure you don’t work for free. If anything, those of us who fly on AA need to have the entire industry reported to the Labor Department! I refuse to take anything or ask anything from a flight attendant until we are in the air. So, I think knowing the dynamics of the industry should be understood before calling anyone a ‘bad Apple’ or just being disagreeable about how someone works. The work rules for flight attendants suck and something need to be done fast

  36. There is a reason the board isn’t removing him. The answer is simple. File bankruptcy again and finish what AA started, but was unable to accomplish. That is TAKE the employee pensions (rather than freezing them, which is where they are now), write off the fancy new headquarters, and all those hundreds of new planes – and wipe out their debt. It’s so obvious. You cannot run an airline this poorly on accident!

  37. Having firsthand knowledge as a current employee of AA, I am in complete agreement that Mr. Parker apparently has no clue regarding poor moral if he thinks it’s due to mechanical issues. The reality is that it is an extremely toxic environment caused by poorly trained mid level management, broken and poorly maintain equipment, short staffing combined with low pay and a useless and ineffective union that encourages non productivity.
    There is a high ratio of supervisors to workers, non productive supervisors with little people or management skills, promoted only because of tenure. It’s virtually impossible to get fired for anything other than poor attendance. The union guarantees that the biggest slackers make exactly the same as the most productive workers thus no real motivation to excel. The only financial advancement is to management thus the source of the unskilled pool of less than talented supervisors is from the mass of poor moral workers. It’s a vicious cycle.
    I am not writing from the point of a disgruntled employee. I am financially independent, retired from an unrelated industry and not dependent for this job. These are simply my observations.

  38. Who was polled about the morale? I’m an employee in CLT. Been here 5 years and not ONCE has anyone asked me how I felt about working for AA….. and I absolutely love it…. I’ve resigned from companies before where I wasn’t happy…… Life is too short to be unhappy where you spend 25-60 hrs per week!! Stop by and let me give you a HIGH 5 and a smile… i exude POSITIVE ENERGY BY CHOICE !!

  39. For years we’ve been watching our competition give thier employees huge profit sharing bonuses. What do we at American get?? Friggin chump change.. This company is a CEO bump up your fortune stepping stone..
    They come here dont give a crap about anyone or anything but thier fortune.. please bring back another that cares like
    Robert Crandall did!!!

  40. Problems at AA.
    1. Employees have no vision Doug Parker has not given the employees one.
    2. Regarding Home Based Reservations- Doug Parker got rid of it.
    I had a friend that works for AA and can not drive and working from home
    was the best option. The doctors submitted paperwork for them to remain
    home based he said no. Under ADA Epilepsy he is in violation of Federal Law.
    Company does not care. Now employee becoming unemployed.
    3. Reservations contract expires this year before merger Doug would not renew
    US Airways contract in Reservations. So let’s see Pilots, Flight Attendents,
    Mechanics and now it will be Reservations.
    4. All the mandotory overtime in reservations because of understaffing but Doug
    says we are over staffed. Explain that to the customers waiting two hours for a.
    callback just to get the wrong department to be transferred.
    5. Customer Service is not what it used to be. Doug has put so many limitations
    on what we can do to help the customer. Prior to merger AA was more customer
    service oriented. That vision was lost on Doug Parker.
    6. Fortune 500 companies have speculated that Doug will run the carrier into
    the ground before the board of directors will replace him.
    7. The seats are so uncomfortable since they have taken padding out of the seats
    it is like sitting on metal especially if you have had hip replacements.
    8 Recommendations— settle the contracts with the unions.
    Give the company a vision
    Yes he brags about the fact he spent all this money in
    training – did not resolve the problems
    Quit violating federal ADA laws get your head on straight
    Doug Parker states open door policy incorrect
    There is no open door policy
    9. Part of Recommendations listen to your employees. Reservations is part of the
    Company. They dealt with the flight cancelations and rebooking
    Try acknowledging them they are the front line representatives
    that can win or break a customer..
    10. I have yet to see Doug Parker even visit reservations. He meets with the
    mechanics, flight attendants, mechanics yet you have little to do
    with reservations. In the past CEO’s came and visited us on a regular basis.
    11. We have some serious employee issues and moral is not good.
    There is still a huge bridge that needs to be bridged between US Airways
    and AA employees that bridge needs to be brought together as one company.
    12. If Doug can not bring the employees together and bargain with the unions
    then step down and let’s find someone with a vision and that can work with
    employees. I do not believe you should be allowed to run us into the ground.
    13. Lost Latam to Delta. Scott Kirby is taking employees over to United.

    14. Bottom line a new CEO one that has a vision, bring the carrier back
    to profitability, listen to employees and our customers.
    15. No customers No job even for Doug Parker. Delta has gained so many
    of AA’s passengers. It’s time to win them back.
    16. Are we a cattle car carrier or a premium carrier?
    17. If we are going to be a premium carrier put the stuffing back in the seats and
    act like a premium carrier.
    18. Recently flew Delta service was superior to AA. Seats comfortable.
    Friendly reservations representatives, a person at ticket counter,
    gate agent friendly and so were the flight attendants. The employees
    were happy. I imagine with a 20 percent wage increase and bigger
    Profit sharing had a lot to do with it.
    19. Let’s not forget the catering went on strike also this summer causing
    cancellations. Doug is building a new catering facility in DFW on top of
    new HDQ’S. Now you see where the money is being spent.

  41. Robert Crandall at least dressed up in a tux handed out profit sharing checks.
    It was an awesome sight. I bet if he was back in two years he could turn the company around 180 and give the employees a vision.
    Robert Crandall never spent money just to blow it in buildings and removing the stuffing out of seats. Which is very painful if you have hip replacements.

    It is sad to see the carrier with no vision for the employees.
    Between building new HDQ’S and a new catering place in DFW there is no money to negotiate with all the unions and reservations contract is up this year also.
    So practically all the unions will be without a contract.
    The question remains will Doug Parker run the company into the ground like the Fortune 500 companies speculate? Will the board of directors allow it? The stock on the carrier has really not picked up under Doug Parker’s management.
    What will it take?

  42. Morale always sucked at AA. Even when Crandall was here. Don’t let anyone let you think otherwise.

  43. Agree with Shandra. Bob Crandall was awesome! I would come out of retirement to work for him again! Working in Chicago Sales during the “crossing the lines campaign in the early 90’s” against UA was a competitive experience and we won!! Loved it!

  44. 2 items..1.guess how many unions Delta has compared to AA. 2. Remember, it was the unions who let Parker in with open arms pretty much back dooring them into AA screwing all of us, even themselves. I’m not anti union, it just seems like their leadership also chooses themselves over the rank and file. Just saying

  45. FYI the merger did not give employees raises. Quite the opposite. Pay stayed virtually the same and work rules got much worse. And since management has basically kicked us like dogs, we are not inclined to be cheerful and helpful as of late.

  46. I flew every weekend with American, with multiple terrible experiences and dealt with it because I had status, but did the Delta status match last year and wish I had done it sooner. Happier flight attendants and more attentive gate agents. Delta’s not great but better than the alternative.

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