I’m fascinated by how airlines have become involved in political issues and the reasons they provide for doing so. The latest example: how American Airlines CEO Doug Parker justifies his carrier’s vocal role in opposing Republican-led efforts to change voting laws in a handful of U.S. states. Is there a sincere moral belief at play? Likely. But is there also a business case? Of course. Parker even explains it.
American Airlines Makes A Business Case For Activism In Divisive Political Issues
Perhaps I am too young to remember an earlier era in which airlines were heavily involved in divisive social issues or laws impacting voting rights, but in the 17 years I have been following the industry I have not seen the level of involvement that we have recently witnessed.
The involvement seems limited to the “Big 3” legacy airlines and includes traditional left-of-center issues including:
- Support of gun control at Delta Air Lines
- Support of Affirmative action at United Airlines
- Opposition to transgender bathroom bills at American Airlines
Which brings us to today’s issue.
View From The Wing obtained a recording of CEO Parker speaking to employees. He addressed why American Airlines so unequivocally condemned efforts in Texas to amend voting procedures:
To us this isn’t a partisan issue. We don’t get involved in partisan politics, we don’t want to. It’s an equity issue. The statement we’ve made is in support of our team.
Let me back up and tell you how we came to that conclusion. Anyone I think would agree that it’s important there be integrity in the voting results so no one’s going to dispute that.
The issue that’s arisen in these efforts and these bills is they’ve become very divisive. They tend to be on political lines but they also tend to be on lines of people of color versus others, and that’s what we saw.
So as soon as Delta was being asked and making statements in Georgia, I started getting questions from a lot of team members about where’s American on this? People of color primarily feeling as though these laws are making it much harder for people like them to vote. And given the history of this country, that’s something that’s happened in the past, and they’re very much concerned that’s what’s happening again.
So you have that concern coming from team members. About the same time there’s a letter from 70-odd black executives, CEOs and others, saying hey business we have to get involved in this. This is an effort to restrain the right for people like us to vote. And then on top of that the NAACP the legal defense fund has filed a opposition to the Texas law. And that’s when we made a statement was when the Texas Senate passed something, and we were being asked by a lot of our team to get involved and by the way the Delta issue was already going on.
We looked at all that, and again not by any means trying to make one side happy or the other but doing what we do which is trying to bring people together on a very divisive issue that’s divided along cultural lines to say we’re opposed to this.
And without getting into great detail, I’m happy to if anyone who wants to, but when you look at as we did the provisions that are in that Texas law – things like not allowing polling centers to be open except 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. that makes it harder for working people to get there, certainly people who work off-shift. Only having a certain number of polling positions per polling office, so if you’re in an urban area you’re probably going to have a longer line than someone in a rural area. Things that people of color feel as though as designed to make it harder for them to vote.
So anyone my short answer to all of this is we’re not trying to pick a side with Democrats or Republicans or voting integrity or not, but we are absolutely going to stand with our Black employees and our Latino employees when they feel like – and we can make a difference and what we say is important – and today in this country it is.
…We feel very strongly. We did the same thing by the way on things like bathroom bills in North Carolina and Texas, which I’m proud of irrespective of anybody’s politics. It’s about pulling people together. It’s about supporting our team.
And by the way there’s a business issue that comes out of this. On those bathroom bills, what happened when North Carolina passed theirs? They lost the NBA All Star Game, they lost Bruce Springsteen concerts, they lost travel. That’s what’s going to happen and it’s happened now in Georgia. They lost the Major League Baseball All Star Game. They’re going to lose travel. That affects us.
I don’t want to say that’s the full reason, we didn’t do it primarily because of business reasons, we did it for what I said, in support of our team. But it does have business reasons.
The more we divide ourselves, and the more divisive we become, the less likely it is that people are going to travel to states that take divisive stances, and that’s not good for us either.
…The short answer is this is not trying to make one side happy or the other. We knew full well the easiest – I was about to say the easiest thing was to stay out of it, that’s not the easiest thing. I think there was virtually no chance we could stay out of it. You have to take a stand on these things. We were asked to take a stand and so we did.
My thoughts, in no particular order:
- There’s a great deal of candor at play here and I have no reason to doubt Parker’s beliefs are not sincerely held
- His notion that this is an “equity” issue rather than a “partisan” issue is odd – of course this is a partisan issue, as partisanship is support of a party, cause, or person
- He fairly eloquently outlines the reason for concern over the Texas voting bill
- Saying that the easiest thing would be to stay out of politics is actually not possible when employees, unions, and other airlines pressure political involvement – not getting involved is itself a statement
- Making a business case for getting involved in divisive political issues is necessary
It’s that last point that was most interesting to me. Parker says that:
- The North Carolina bathroom bill led to lost income at its CLT hub
- A Texas voting bill will lead to lost income at its fortress DFW hub
Parker notes, “I don’t want to say that’s the full reason, we didn’t do it primarily because of business reasons, we did it for what I said, in support of our team. But it does have business reasons.”
Translation: it’s all about business. If Texas passes its voting bill, many will boycott the state. There will be less conventions, less sporting events, and less concerts. That means less people flying American Airlines.
Whatever the actual impact of the Texas voting bill on voting, the passage of that bill will undeniably hurt American Airlines. That’s not debatable: the warnings are already flowing in.
This issue is particularly salient. After all, American Airlines went to war with its labor for years over living wages. Delta used virulent Islamophobic rhetoric in opposing Gulf carriers. It’s not like carriers have always been paragons of progressive virtue. But when it hurts the pocketbook, expect full-scale support.
It’s easy to say that less division will come by avoiding divisive issues. The problem with that is the issues are still there and a non-statement is itself a statement. U.S. corporations, for better or worse, have waded into divisive issues, but it is not because they just want to be “woke” for the sake of being woke…or even just to support employees. It is because they see a strong business case for doing so.
When it comes to voting, I have no basis upon which to conclude the Parker is not sincere in wanting to protect the rights of AA employees to vote. But we humans tend to tell on ourselves and Parker made clear the strong business case for opposing this legislation. There’s nothing wrong with that. Quite the contrary, that is a great reason to oppose the Texas legislation and the reason many businesses do absent proof of widespread voter fraud. And it’s also not unreasonable for AA not to want to bite the hand that feeds it, a slim Democratic majority in Congress that just handed American Airlines another huge relief package.
But if you ever wondered why an airline gets involved in divisive political issues, always follow the money.
image: Thank You / Flickr