Airlines have always attracted colorful characters and larger-than-life chief executives. Brash billionaire Howard Hughes once owned Trans World Airlines and corporate raider Carl Icahn once ran it. Think of the volatile, empire-building Frank Lorenzo of Eastern Airlines; folksy, eccentric Southwest Airlines chairman Herb Kelleher; and international bad boy Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways. And, of course, American Airlines’ Robert Crandall. Crandall was the hot-tempered, cutthroat CEO who built Fort Worth-based American into an industry juggernaut by the sheer force of his competitive thirst for blood. Nicknames like Fang and Darth Vader stuck for good reason. And even though Crandall retired three years ago, it’s hard to think of American as anything but Crandall’s airline. His many innovations, from frequent-flier programs to the hub-and-spoke network and computerized reservation systems, revolutionized the airline business. So it’s not surprising that when the torch was passed in 1998 to the more low-key and polished Don Carty, some wondered if he might be just a caretaker. Until recently the major innovation he was known for was the “More Room Throughout Coach” program that removed some seats from American’s planes to give passengers more legroom. Nice, but not exactly gutsy. It begged the question: What exactly was Carty going to do with Crandall’s airline? And did he have the killer instinct to succeed in such an intensely competitive business?
The tall, white-haired, Canadian-born Carty finally answered that question in January when he stepped onto a New York stage and boldly went where his former boss had not gone before—into the turbulent skies of airline consolidation. But the 54-year-old Carty, it turned out, wasn’t out to destroy competitors with strong-arm tactics.