On July 7, 2014, American Airlines Chairman and CEO,
Doug Parker, announced that groundbreaking would commence on the following day
for a state-of-the-art Integrated Operations Center, named after former
Vice Chairman, Robert W. Baker. Mr. Baker understood integrated operations,
especially when it came to the integration of the head and heart in business.
The Foundation's June and July Wednesday Wisdom articles
featured interviews with a passenger and an employee survivor of the crash of
American Airlines Flight 1420, June 1, 1999. While interviewing survivors of
the accident, I reflected upon Mr. Baker's enormous contribution to survivor
assistance programs in aviation and industrial tragedies in general. Before
moving to another subject for this series, I felt compelled to write an article
about Mr. Baker.
Mr. Baker followed in his father's footsteps when he
joined American Airlines in 1968. His father served the airline for forty-one
years, while Bob worked there for thirty-five years. He held many jobs in his
tenure at American and finished his career as Executive Vice President of Operations in 1989 and Vice Chairman in 2000. During that time, he presided
over four fatal crashes and in doing so, ushered in the American Airlines CARE
My research on survivors of airline accidents began in
the late eighties, and many of the lessons learned came from interviews with
survivors and employee responders from crashes that occurred during his tenure.
I spoke with Mr. Baker more than once toward the end of his career, and in my
book Handbook for Human Services Response, I quoted highlights
from a 2001 videotaped interview. Looking back at those comments today, it is
no wonder that he was the first interviewee in my chapter on Conscious
Leaders. In the following selected quotes, Mr. Baker summarized his
perspective on support for those impacted by an airline crash.
Our priorities have to be survivors, families, and
employees. Only when you have that on the mend can you begin to worry about the
legal implications of an accident. The legal consequences of the disaster must
come after the people have been looked after.
What we do initially is very important to provide
the support. Getting people into hotels, getting them the clothes they need,
(people) don't think of things like this, but we have to think about these
things and provide them. And then (to) give them a contact to work with them
during the entire process is where our CARE Team comes into play.
While all of that is going on and our teams of
employees are launched, the airline community has a big set of issues to deal
with as well. Most of our people have given their adult life to working for the
airline. We spend every waking hour of our lives trying to run an airline as
safely as any airline in the world. We are constantly talking and pushing that
approach at our employees. And so, when we lose an airplane it is a traumatic
shock to the airline community.
All of the employees want to know what happened.
Someone in the media asked me what it was like to have an accident. I explained
that it is the next worse thing to losing a family member for an employee to
work for an airline that has had an accident. We have to deal with the
employees too, because they too have to get closure. But they have to
participate in the process too and it is a very long process.
When I asked about saying sorry—a crucial part of
showing heart—his response resonated with me. His response matched what leading
plaintiff's lawyers have told me. Expressing sorrow is a necessity on the part
of any company where a tragedy occurs in their workplace.
I think it is critically important. I grew up saying
I am sorry; I say it regularly to my wife of 35 years. It is important to
relationships, when something happens to impact others and you are looked upon
as having created the problem. And at the time of the airline disaster, it is
the airline's responsibility. I think it is super critical.