Barreling high-speed through the airport terminal, Bob Crandall is cutting it close, as usual. The head of American Airlines boards the plane just seconds before the door swings shut. “Hey, kiddo,” he rings out to the slightly flummoxed flight attendant and charges down the isle to his favorite seat on the last row of the first-class section, a skinny man in a black suit and an old-fangled frat-row haircut. But he needn’t have hurried: Flight 509 to Los Angeles isn’t budging. Outside, blackish rain has turned the runways at Dallas—Fort Worth International Airport into a monstrous traffic jam. Silver-bodied American jets are backed up to the horizon, burning fuel while they wait for the weather to clear. So there he sits—the tireless, ruthless, brilliant, infuriating, and intimidating airline titan, whose bare-knuckled tactics have made his American the most envied and loathed airline in the world—trapped on a rain-pummeled runway, going nowhere.
He is stuck in more ways than one. American Airlines and its parent company, Fort Worth—based AMR Corporation, have been hemorrhaging money for three years—including a stupendous $935 million last year alone. Incapable of enduring more losses, furious at the unwillingness of the federal government to follow his advice, Crandall is switching course, reversing a decade of nonstop expansion by shrinking the airline: shutting down hubs, selling off planes, firing employees—indeed, changing the very nature of the company. Now he is on his way to Los Angeles to explain his actions to his employees. But how could a man who has staked his career on the philosophy that in order for some to win, others have to lose, admit that this time, winning might not be an option? How could a man who loves to dominate stand before an auditorium of a thousand employees and explain that American Airlines is in a tailspin because of forces entirely beyond his control?
To begin with, Crandall could have passed out copies of an article from that day’s newspaper, which reported that American’s rival, Southwest Airlines, was about to expand into San Jose,