American Brings The Leader Of The Northwest Airlines Bankruptcy Onto Its Board

Yesterday American Airlines added former Northwest Airlines CEO Doug Steenland to its board. Steenland led Northwest through its bankrutpcy and merger with Delta.

This seems significant. He’s 69 years old, and clearly not a diversity pick. (United Airlines announced a search for “a second Black board member.”)

Steenland is someone that could replace Doug Parker as Board Chairman if Parker were to leave the airline, by the way. Ex-Northwest in operations is never good though. It’s easy to imagine non-Executive Chairman Steenland and CEO Robert Isom. Isom, who is currently American’s President, is himself an ex-Northwest Senior Vice President.

Douglas Steenland started his career in the airlines as an attorney at Continental, having had experience in private practice and the Department of Transportation. He rose through the ranks to become general counsel at Northwest, before becoming President and then CEO, a path similar to that taken by Jeff Smisek at Continental and then United. He’s served on the boards of Delta, Travelport, International Lease Finance Corporation, Hilton and AIG.

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. Actually from an operations standpoint NWA was the King. You’d have thought Isom would’ve learned. Apparently all the sharp ops people went to Delta and turned their lazy, ahh-shucks, half-speed southern style into an operation than resembles NWA. Steenland is a creep. Oddly impersonal. But ran NWA as a tight ship. Think of it – an airline that continued to operate successfully despite its mechanics union going on strike. There are scores of ex NWA folks at AA starting with Dougie. DFW hub VP Joe Taney ran MSP but was passed over for Bill Lensch. And he’ll soon be DAL President when Ed leaves to run the BLM cabinet for Biden.

  2. Isn’t this same heartless corporate scumbag who told employees facing a paycut to consider dumpster diving to help make ends meet.? P.O.S.

  3. I know next to nothing about the history of Northwest Airlines and know nothing about this new Board member in particular.

    Perhaps this has implications for a potential bankruptcy filing. Perhaps not.

    Yet, at least this person has extensive airline experience and that seems far more valuable than “a diversity pick”.

  4. Actually, as a former NW/DL employee- he instituted a 30% paycut that took 10 years to recoup. It then took another five years to get ahead. He was booed out of many meetings.
    Buckle up AA, this one IS going to be a bumpy ride. Get your pension locked down because it will be on the table.

  5. Gary I sense that you’re painting the dots and we are supposed to connect the dots.

    Forgive me but I’m not able to connect the dots.

    Is the implication AA gets gobbled up by DL?

    Or AA is getting ready to go full bankruptcy?

    Or AA realizes their operation is a joke and is bringing somebody in with a history of operating a tight ship?

    Or is there another conclusion I’m supposed to be making?

    Or is this a placeholder you can link back to and triumphantly proclaim “I called it”?

    In the military it’s called BLUF: bottom line up front. In newspaper it’s the inverted pyramid: start with what’s important and work your way into detail.

  6. Having spent my prime travel years in Detroit I have to disagree with the shots at NWA not operating efficiently. They lacked the friendly nature of Delta and Continental, but the mainline Northwest flights ran on time and you could depend on arriving when you planned.

  7. Several posters have already come to NWA’s defense and I respect their thoughts and insights.

    My question is if NWA was such a well run carrier how did they end up in bankruptcy where the only option was a merger with Delta Airlines? Where did it all go wrong for NWA?

  8. NWA ender in bankruptcy because they offered an unacceptable contract to the mechanics and cleaners, knowing a strike would happen, all right before the bankruptcy laws were about to change. Then NWA CEO Doug Steeland was able to throw out all union contracts.
    God help AA employees.

  9. My understanding is NW crossed the line of no return when the airline was used as collateral for a leveraged buyout. At that point the inevitable outcome was bankruptcy, and ultimate acquisition by Delta.

    This happened right before I really started paying attention to aviation. I’m sure others can fill in the details.

  10. NWA and DL filed for bankruptcy on the same day at the same courthouse in NYC. This was a period of consolidation in the US Airline industry. NW was much smaller but had more money in the bank than DL. Both airlines needed each other and the more well known DL name survived. This was a merger and not an acquisition.

  11. Those who say NW was badly run operationally must have never flown with them.
    In fact it was all the opposite – a military operation that worked, IT/website 15 years ago was better than pretty much any other website today.

    The product itself was less polished than other airlines and labor relations were really bad – but the airline worked and wasn’t pretentious like others (especially CO back then). NW also defended its turf like no other airline – sparking fare wars with others in key markets.

  12. After reading the responses is it fair to say that NWA really did NOT need to file bankruptcy they had more than enough liquidity to survive on their own, they were a well run carrier according to multiple people on this site.

    However NWA did have bad labor relations so they used bankruptcy as way of busting up the unions?

    If that is how this played out at NWA Lord help American and then United, because if American does go down this road to bust up the unions there is no way United Airlines does not follow suit if for no other purpose than to bust up their unions. Right now AA is around $42-43 billion dollars in debt, much much more than United Airlines, be that as it may I still think if AA files, UA within 12-24 months may follow suit.

  13. Isn’t AA continuing to spend money on aircraft acquisition and aircraft refit? With much of its fleet grounded, both expenses seem unwise and wholly unnecessary.

    Spending cash you don’t need to seems stupid unless you plan on racking up expenses you eventually plan on wiping away / reducing via bankruptcy.

  14. Just another carpetbagger added to a BOD of other carpetbaggers. Screw the employees and the customers, there is a whole lot that stinks at AA HQ. Up next, BANKRUPTCY!

  15. NWA was poorly run with lower employee moral and bad customer sentiment.

    How so many NW castoffs from the DL/NWA merger find themself in high management positions throughtout AA is a sad and depressing situation.

    It is bizarre Parker (AAL CEO) who claims to care about employees, has overseen such terrible employee treatment the last 5 yrs. He can’t control COVID, but the way AAL shoved so many out the door with pathetic support from their People Department (HR) … again sprinkled with NW rejects, is inexcusable.

    Now he brings in another executive from the failed NWA? Isom must owe him for his unwarranted promotion while at NW. AA ops is littered with NW folks that DL dumped. This is why service at AA has slipped so badly.

  16. I certainly do not recall NW being a leader in operations performance.

    Parker and crew talk of wanting kinder/gentler employee relations but their actions are quite the opposite. The entire AA senior staff are suited to running a small sanitation company, nothing more complicated. The NWA crew are in over their heads yet not smart enough to recognize it.

  17. Parker is used to bad labor relationships. Just ask old america west and us air folks

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