Skift Take

Robert Isom believes the worst is behind American Airlines, and the airline's operations are running as smoothly as they can be. In this interview, the CEO reveals the bigger things on his mind as he maps out American's longer term future.

The inaugural Skift Aviation Forum welcomed Robert Isom, the CEO of American Airlines, as its first speaker at the Statler Hotel in downtown Dallas. During the interview he shared how the world's biggest airline was prepared for the upcoming Thanksgiving vacation, and already looking ahead to the future with a focus on recruiting and training pilots, and staffing the carrier back up. On stage, he also commented on Twitter's turmoil in relation to the airline's customers, and why Dallas Fort Worth Airport "will be the cornerstone on which American will grow."  Watch Isom's full on-stage interview with Airline Weekly editor Edward Russell, as well as read a transcript of it, below. Full Transcript Edward Russell: Well, good morning everybody. As Rafat said, welcome to the first inaugural Skift Aviation Forum here in Dallas. I'm Edward Russell, the editor of Airline Weekly, and my guest today needs almost no introduction. Robert Isom leads American Airlines, the largest airline in the world. He has been CEO since March after six years as president and chief operations officer at American and US Airways before that. So welcome, Robert. Robert Isom: Yeah, it is good to be here. Thank you. Russell: Excellent. Well, we are an aviation conference, so I want to kick things off. Says you're a big AV geek in your bio, so I got to ask, what's your favorite plane? Isom: A favorite plane right now is planes that deliver on time. Look, we have all flavors. So I think we're the world's largest operator of Embraer aircraft, the world's largest operator of the old Bombardier aircraft. We're one of the biggest operators of Boeing and Airbus. So you're asking me to choose among all the children? No way, buddy. Not going to happen. They're all really great. I like the ones that deliver on time. I like the planes that arrive on time. So that's my favorite flight. Russell: Right? A very diplomatic answer for sure. The best flights are always the ones that, yes, arrive on time and you don't remember a day after. But of course, speaking of operations, we're here a week before Thanksgiving. So operations have been in the news a lot this summer, this spring, there were issues, things have gotten better. Is American ready for the holidays? Isom: Well, first off, I just like to say thanks for holding a conference in DFW, Dallas. Okay? That is a big deal to us. Anytime you want to come, I'm happy to come and talk to anybody. Bringing people in on my aircraft, that's a great deal. So are we ready? Look, we've had three hurricanes in the last few months. We've had all sorts of issues that come our way. Yet the last month, October, was one of the best months in our company's history in terms of on time performance and in terms of completion factors. So I believe we're ready. Now, as we get into the holidays, one of the things that in the past has always been asked is, you have a lot of peaking to your schedule. And also the way people travel. It's all on one day and not on another. One of the things that we're seeing though, is that demand is more spread out. It's just really high, and at least from an airline perspective, we don't have the ability to actually peak and valley as much as we've had in the past. So I look at the holidays as a really busy period of time, something we have to get ready for, making sure all the right resources are in the right place. But it's something I know that we have more pilots on hand than we've ever had for the type of flying that we're doing, more flight attendants, and then also our team members. So we're ready. Russell: Good. That's really good to hear. And I think every traveler out there I can say is looking forward to an uneventful and smooth holiday travel season. Isom: But again, the thing that I think most people experience, and I don't know how your travels were coming into this conference, but you're on pretty full planes, right? So we're operating a really robust schedule today. American's operating the largest schedule, and we've been doing that for some time now. So I have great confidence that what we see coming forward over the Thanksgiving holidays, and then as we get to the year end, we'll be in good shape. Edward Russell: Excellent. So it's interesting, you mentioned that people are spreading out their travel and everything. I spoke to Nick Calio at Airlines for America a few days ago, and he talked about a week of Thanksgiving, like people pushing out. Are you seeing that? That it's no longer the Wednesday before and the Sunday after, and everyone's on the road, that it's more of a spread out holiday period, or? ... Isom: It's interesting. I'm glad that you're talking to Nick. He's a good guy. So Nick heads up A4A and advocates on behalf of the airlines, which is something we need these days. But yeah, travel, as it's come back, and as all of you know, we're doing things differently. So as much as you'd like to say that you got to get all your work done Monday through Friday, people are spreading out. Not just 9:00 to 5:00, but going throughout the day, but then also the week as well. And I think as well, it's just you don't need to have your holiday on a Saturday and Sunday. People are much more willing to do that at different times and also mix purposes of travel. So I see it all over the place, and I think that that bodes well because it ultimately means that for our airports, for our planes, we're not all beholden to the same structures as we were in the past. We can become much more efficient because demand is regularly high at all periods. Russell: I mean, you're talking about full flights and strong demand, and that's absolutely something that we keep seeing. You said during the third quarter earnings call about a month ago, that you see no slow down in demand despite the potential macroeconomic pressures. Is that still holding true? Are you still ... things still look good? Isom: Oh, I think so, Ned. Well, it's really amazing to think of where we started this year. Right? So American in