The Former Pan Am And Continental CEO Who Gave Us American AAdvantage Has Passed Away

We are losing the men (and back then, they were all men) who gave us the modern frequent flyer program. Last year Rolfe Schellenberger passed away. Now his boss Tom Plaskett has passed away as well. Plaskett was just 77.

Tom Plaskett began his career at American Airlines and spent 12 years there. He served as Senior Vice President of Marketing, and his team launched American AAdvantage which turned 40 this year.

The original code name for the frequent flyer project that became AAdvantage was ‘Loyalty Fare’ because the original task was to come up with a frequent traveler discount. The team, which included consultant Hal Brierley and Schellenberger, realized that any discount fare would be matched, and they were looking for a way to keep customers loyal and coming back to them.

AAdvantage was initially introduced as a promotion, and wasn’t made indefinite until April 1983 – two years into its life. It wasn’t obvious at the start how big this would become.

The original AAdvantage charged 12,000 miles for a first class upgrade (there were no capacity controls). 50,000 miles was a first class roundtrip ticket, and if you bought a coach ticket for a companion it came with an upgrade, too. Two first class tickets were 75,000 miles. A year later British Airways awards were added: 20,000 miles for an upgrade from first class to Concorde or 40,000 miles for an economy roundtrip between the U.S. and London for two passengers.

Elite status – AAdvantage Gold – was introduced in July 1982. American’s first hotel partner was Hyatt, so the new American-Hyatt partnership is fitting. Back in the fall of 1982 members received discounts on Hyatt properties in Mexico, “Imagine a double room at the Hyatt Cancun Caribe for only $37.50 or a double room at the Hyatt Regency Acapulco for only $30.50.” Around the same time Hertz became the first car rental partner.

When AAdvantage launched it started out with existing customer lists totaling around 200,000 members. American says that of those original members, plus people who joined during that first year, 144,000 remain active in the program.

Plaskett left American to become President and CEO of Continental, but lasted less than a year as he clashed with Frank Lorenzo and executives at parent company Texas Air, which merged together the operations of Continental with People Express, Frontier and New York Air during his tenure. Six months later he became Chairman and CEO of Pan Am in January 1988, three years before the airline’s bankruptcy. Later in his career he served as Chairman of Greyhound.

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. He was one of many who wasn’t a ‘yes man’ to Lorenzo and was subsequently fired.

  2. Tom Plaskett, the Senior Vice President of Marketing at American Airlines, took an executive position at Greyhound. I think any executive at American Airlines is well qualified to become a C-level executive at Greyhound.

  3. As a long time IT executive I still associate AA w Mad Hopper who helped develop Sabre and later served as its Chairman (after being SVP for American). He died in 2010 but his contribution to airline scheduling (along w yield management and support of the Advantage program) made him a giant in both the IT and airline industries

  4. RIP these brilliant folks responsible
    Sadly hes probably spinning in his grave based on what Dugless Parker and his cronies have done to destroy the once great program

  5. Might get fun to discuss the early changes to the Frequent Flyer programs after it became apparent the initial designs were flawed 1985 to 1991 the first 10 years in particular. United took the lead away from American in 1988 when it changed the awards structure and also started to expire the miles.

  6. I, along with thousands of my collogues who worked side by side with Tom, take great offense to the unfounded, baseless and disguising comparison and conclusion proffered by “Ken A” and “Kenneth Jensen.” Especially disconcerting is the analogy to the current AA Senior Management and leadership of the one that built and sustained the #1 airline in the world for over a decade. Tom Plaskett was as integral part of that highly successful team led by Bob Crandall. He was the epitome of an airline executive and had tremendous respect among his collogues and associates in the industry, especially those who worked under him as was my good fortune. In the future, those making such ill-founded and insinuating comments should be confined to actual facts. Their comments reveal a total lack of insight into the American Airlines of that era and, lacking same, need to refrain from to making such an idioc conclusions. The article was a well-deserved tribute to the passing of an industry pioneer – May He Rest in Peace!

  7. The name AAdvantage was created by a Corporate Communications man by the name of Al Becker. Didn’t come up with the program itself, only the name.

  8. @IP: You were blessed to work side by side with Tom.
    My comment “Tom Plaskett, the Senior Vice President of Marketing at American Airlines, took an executive position at Greyhound. I think any executive at American Airlines is well qualified to become a C-level executive at Greyhound.” I was not trying to be disrespectful. Greyhound clients can be more querulous and lack the problem-solving skills found in most American Airlines passengers. Accordingly, any C-level AA executive will have sufficient passenger care expertise to successfully work in the more stressful and challenging Greyhound Bus environment. You might disagree, but I believe Tom Plaskett liked marketing challenges and accepted his career promotion with Greyhound.

    Read more:

  9. Thanks for the clarifying, KenA. With all the negativism floating around, I guess I am a little sensitive when someone I respected and admired appears to be denigrated. My apologies.

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