Doug Parker, returning to the carrier where he began his career, has a vision: He sees American Airlines vaulting to the top of the industry's major financial benchmarks just three years after the merger he orchestrated with US Airways Group Inc.
Don't take his visions lightly. Mr. Parker was CEO of the eighth-largest U.S. carrier and the youngest airline CEO in America when he began calling for consolidation in the U.S. Twelve years later, the industry is about to shrink to three airlines with international reach, and the 51-year-old Mr. Parker was central to making that happen.
The man poised to run the new American as it becomes the world's biggest airline is propelled by a mix of relentless determination, pragmatism, patience, risk, energy and a kind of Reaganesque confidence that tends to rub off on a room.
Asked at an interview at Bloomberg's headquarters in New York whether he has sometimes felt like actor-director Ben Affleck, who said at the Oscars that being knocked down is less important than getting up, Mr. Parker looked quizzical for a moment and responded, "I've never felt knocked down."
That's quite a statement for someone who became CEO of already struggling America West Holdings Corp. 10 days before the 9/11 attacks; was caught up in airlines' deepest cutbacks in flying since World War II; had his company dissed as "the ugly girl" amid three rebuffs by potential merger partners; and was elbowed away when he first suggested that US Airways take over bankrupt AMR Corp.'s much-bigger American.
"From the time I started in this business, people would say, 'It's the airline business; it's romantic and we don't make money,' " Mr. Parker said. "But none of that ever made sense to me. It's not romantic. It's bad business."
Speaking quickly, in full sentences with few pauses, Mr. Parker gives the impression of someone who knows where a paragraph ends before he even starts, much as he says he always knew airlines would have to consolidate to survive.
The son of a Kroger Co. meat cutter who rose to vice president, Mr. Parker received an MBA at Vanderbilt University and said he's not an "airline geek" who "breathes jet fuel." Instead, asked why he likes the job, he talked about the complexities, from finance to marketing to operations to maintenance.
"I love the business," he said. "The business we do is hard. I like the challenge of the business, the logistics. I like how everything is important in it."
The odds against Mr. Parker can't be overstated. Warren Buffett likes to say that the airline industry, as a whole, hasn't made a penny since the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. The Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chairman has sworn off airline investments since a 1989 investment in US Airways that he once dubbed a "mistake."
Mr. Parker will need to blend two airlines with almost 94,000 employees, more than 900 mainline jets, eight hubs and 99 million loyalty plan members. He also must build a common identity for employees, woo back corporate fliers lost to the wider networks of United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc., and repair operations that left American last among seven major U.S. carriers in on-time arrivals in 2012.
"The execution of this has got to be close to perfect," said George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Va. "You have companies with different cultures, a lot of different systems. There's an awful lot of moving parts. And one of the parties in this marriage has come somewhat unwillingly."
Some believe Mr. Parker can pull it off. Fourteen of 15 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg recommend buying Tempe, Ariz.- based US Airways, which has more than tripled since AMR's bankruptcy filing on Nov. 29, 2011; one has a hold rating.
Mr. Parker has led US Airways to annual profits since 2010 and will extend the streak this year and next on a stand-alone basis, according to estimates compiled by Bloomberg. By passenger traffic, the airline he runs now is only half as big as the one he is about to lead, and ranks fifth in the U.S. to American's No. 3.
"He's clearly not afraid of risk or to take chances," said Hunter Keay, an analyst with Wolfe Trahan & Co. in New York. "I don't think Doug ever wants to look back and say, 'I wish I had done that.' He's willing to embrace commercial risk so he can effect change, given his small size in the industry."
Now Mr. Parker has to persuade regulators to approve the deal. Some consumer advocates are concerned that less competition will mean higher ticket prices, an issue already raised in congressional hearings. US Airways has said it expects the merger to close in the third quarter.
American Airlines Group Inc., as the new company will be called, will join United and Delta as the only U.S. carriers with full-service cabins and international networks, down from seven airlines in 2000. They're joined at the top of the industry by one dominant discounter, Southwest Airlines Co. -- a realization of Mr. Parker's consolidation goal.
One of his sounding boards has been the man linked with the expansion of the old American: Bob Crandall, 77, who retired as CEO and chairman in 1998.
"I think the world of Bob Crandall. I have turned to him for advice a number of times throughout my career and through this process," said Mr. Parker, who declined to talk about what the two have discussed.
Mr. Crandall praised Mr. Parker and his team for doing a "superior job" in improving operations at US Airways.
"Doug's been pursuing the notion of enlarging US Airways for a long time," said Mr. Crandall, who also wouldn't comment on any conversations with Mr. Parker. "For this deal, he is in the right place at the right time, and they put the story together in a very persuasive way."
Success for the merger will be based on the new American's profitability relative to its peers, profit margins as good as or better than others in the U.S. industry, a return on capital and a return on equity to shareholders, Mr. Parker said. He will be "disappointed" if the airline isn't leading its largest competitors on those metrics within three years, he said.
"It's a much more healthy industry structurally," he said. "We now have an industry that's positioned, at least, to be able to provide real returns to investors like they've never seen before."
Has Mr. Parker always been such an optimist? He smiled at the question and responded, in one of those full paragraphs:
"I believe it, so it's easy. This is a great business that has a really nice future ahead of it, and we have a very good airline that we're going to build. I'm excited about it. None of this is surprising to me. It feels like this is where we've always been headed."