The SABF had the pleasure of asking some questions to Mr. Gerard Arpey, Chairman of AMR Corporation and American Airlines, Inc. We would like to thank Mr. Arpey for sharing with us his invaluable experience and thoughts.
SABF: Only 3% of the population worldwide makes decisions that directly or indirectly have impact on others. Considering the great responsibility this process implies, what factors affect your decision making process most?
G. A.: In a public company, our obligation is to our shareholders, but we understand that other stakeholder groups – customers, employees, and the communities we serve – have important interests. We try to account for these, as best we can, in decision making. This is, of course, challenging, because stakeholder interests often conflict – for example, our employees want to be paid more, but our customers are accustomed to the selling prices set by the new, low-cost carriers.
SABF: Which are the critical factors that have allowed you to reach success in your professional life? E.g. University studies, intelligence, emotional intelligence, intuition…
G. A.: Education, especially university training, was important. Early work experience teaches you a lot. For example, I had a summer job loading bags for Delta Airlines; it was tough and hot and physically demanding, and I learned many lessons there. Curiosity is an often overlooked characteristic. And I must emphasize the importance of having a strong ethical compass.
SABF: How did you and American Airlines cope with the aftermath of 9/11? How were employees and consumers reassured?
G. A.: We would fill up the blog with all the detail. This was at once a huge national tragedy and an enormous company tragedy. Fortunately, all of us in the airline industry have some experience with crisis management, though on a smaller scale, and we set to work using many crisis-management principles.
Customer reassurance was important. We sent e-mail and paper mail to our customers, outlining all the steps we had taken and would take to increase security (e.g., new cockpit doors, linkage to databases of known dangerous persons). We worked closely with the media, to correct exaggeration and provide facts. We did a lot of the same with employees, and added things like counseling and group sessions so that people were more open about their feelings. Looking back, we did reasonably well, but it was an enormous challenge and a painful time.
SABF: What are your views on South America as a developing region and what do you think are its crucial needs, in order to develop successfully and sustainably?
G. A.: As you know, the region forms an important part of our network, as we link not only South America, but also Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean with North America and on to Asia and Europe. We have consistently expanded our business in South America as opportunities have arisen. We are proud of our teams in Argentina and the other countries of your continent, especially the fact that our leaders tend to be nationals from each country, not expatriates.
If you look at the work of economists and the experience of business leaders, several development “must haves” emerge, which are common across the world. These are largely the responsibility of national governments: rule of law and transparency in government process; sensible tax and investment rules; financial and budget discipline; investment in infrastructure (transport, utilities, etc.); access to education; and common respect for people, especially their differences.