This morning I covered a fantastic story about an interaction between American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, where they connected over issues of race and the challenges confronting our country right now. This story, initially shared by the flight attendant to Facebook, is gaining broad coverage across the internet.
Doug Parker actually shared his version of the encounter as well.
Last summer I wrote that every day an American Airlines officer takes turns sending a note to other officers about “create an environment that cares for front line team members.” Parker reported that he wears a wrist band “that says CECFTM [that] stands for Create an Environment that Cares for our Frontline Team Members.” He relayed this story first as part of that practice, and then it was shared broadly with American Airlines employees on their intranet, Jetnet.
He explains why he was on Southwest Airlines in the first place, “I needed to get to Panama City, FL and all of our seats were sold out!” It was kind of him not to bump a passenger.
Parker said he appreciated the anonymity of flying Southwest rather than American – and face masks. Then he continued,
As I prepared to board, I pulled the book I wanted to read inflight from my backpack. The book is White Fragility — the book [American Airlines Director] Marty Nesbitt recommended to [American Senior Vice President] Elise [Eberwein] and that both she and [Chief Information Officer] Maya [Leibman] had recommended to all of us. It is fantastic — challenging, and educational — but I’m embarrassed to say I had only gotten halfway through it before the crisis hit, and hadn’t picked it up since. The horrific and senseless death of George Floyd reminded me there were bigger issues in our world than coronavirus, so I packed the book for the trip.
I boarded the aircraft and found an empty row in the back. I put the book in the seat pocket, logged into WiFi and began reading and sending emails without opening the book.
About an hour into our 90-minute flight, the flight attendant from the front of the aircraft leaves her position and walks back to me in row 25 and sits down in the aisle seat. My ego again assumes she has recognized me, mask and all, and wants to know why I’m flying Southwest.
But, no, she has no idea who I am. She is a young, black woman and she points at the book lodged in my seat pocket and asks, “How do you like that book?” I say it’s fantastic and defensively show her how I’m a bit past midway. She says, “It’s on my list to read and I saw you bring it onboard and I just wanted to talk to you….” And then she started to cry.
I felt wholly inadequate but I knew it was a special moment. The best I could do was tell her that the book talks about how white people are horrible at talking about racism, and that what we need are real conversations. She agreed. I told her I was trying to learn and through tears and a mask, she said, “So am I.”
We talked for a good ten minutes and it was an absolute gift to me. Toward the end, I felt compelled to tell her what I did for a living. I’m not sure why, but it seemed like I should tell this WN flight attendant (JacqueRae) that had sought me out, that I worked in the business, too. I’m glad I did, because she gasped and told me her mother works for us in DCA. Then she started to cry again and leaned across the middle seat and hugged me. She thanked me for listening and then went back up front as we prepared for descent.
Before we deplaned, I had a wonderful email from her mother, Patti, thanking me for comforting her daughter. I had done nothing, of course. JacqueRae was the brave one. I was sitting comfortably in the back sending you guys emails without thinking twice about what this young woman — and others like her — were going through. She was a gift to me.
I did my best to explain that to JacqueRae in a note I scribbled out on descent. Then I replied to Patti’s email. I’m just going to copy my note to her here, because it relays my emotions about this as best I can…
He ends by offering that the Southwest flight attendant taught him that “it takes courage and leadership to start the conversation and to stand up for what is right.” And he implored the executive leadershipa the airline to “[p]lease get out and talk to your teams today. Bring people together, not apart. We need caring leadership now more than ever.”