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Specializing in the air – interview with Urban and Community Relations for American Airlines managing director Lou Phillips – Interview

As Managing Director of Urban and Community Relations for American
Airlines, part of Laugh Phillips’s responsibilities include recruiting
students for employment, developing the concept of ethnotourism, and
building relations with Black colleges and universities. He recently
sat down with Black Issues to discuss these and other aspects of
specialization in the fastest growing industry in America.

You’ve just returned from interviewing students for employment with American Airlines. What’s your impression of them?

I had particular interest in the African American students because
of the keen competition for the sharp ones. For example, one of the
interviewees from the University of Maryland was just outstanding. He
had immersed himself a year ago in the Italian culture and he took a
six-month direct immersion into the Italian culture to learn the
language, and was particularly interested in the arts. He was just
extremely articulate, and had an in-depth grip and understanding of the
industry from a marketing perspective as well as the elements that are
of keen interest to the airlines, and that is the cost-side. I was just
blown away by him.

Another student, a young female from Southern Methodist, had some
industry experience from the sales and marketing perspective and she
was just absolutely on the money with regards to the anticipated
changes that are coming in the industry. The amount of research that
each one of the kids did on American Airlines, on the industry, and on
some of the individuals who are running the business prior to coming to
this interview was just incredible.

Do you think that these kids were aberrations?

It is my sense that they are typical of students who are fully
focused on what they want to achieve. Now I hasten to add that there
are some who are not as focused.

You mean, the ones who are just looking for a job.

That’s exactly right. These [two] kids [I mentioned before] were
clearly committed to their long-term careers, as opposed to just
looking for the next job. As such, they did all the necessary legwork
to come into an interview fully prepared.

Were they transportation and hospitality industry majors?

So you are saying that their targeted preparation for the interview,
their communication skills, and their enthusiasm were major selling
points that impressed you.

That’s exactly right. And their ability, in a short term, to grasp
the true essence of the industry. Now in an interview, you don’t
necessarily have the time to determine whether that understanding is
surface or if it has been embedded as a part of the business makeup.
But it was clear to me that they were not just regurgitating
information that they had just read on a page.

What are some of the reasons that American, and the airline industry in general, is paying more attention to higher education?

We’re trying to find the brightest and best that are out there. If
you’re not there and involved with those students early on in their
careers or with the institution, you’re not going to get the best and
the brightest. You’re going to e the last to try and ferret through the
less than sterling performers.

How do you decide which schools you want to recruit from? How do the people in the industry decide?

American has a human resources organization that focuses on
recruiting across the board. My group, which started a little over a
year ago, took it on as a mission to pay particular interest to
historical Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I suspect that a
lot of companies, and this is only Laugh Phillips talking, pay
attention to the schools that are touted to be the best of whatever
discipline that you are interested in.

So school reputation makes a big difference?

Reputation has a lot to do with it. Florida A&M, for example, is
now touted to be the producer of business graduates. When we put our
group together, it became obvious to me that a lot of the other HBCUs
were not getting that kind of focus but yet were producing incredibly
brilliant people. So we’ve linked ourselves up with each one of those
schools on several different levels to provide a resource for the
talented ones to be exposed to American Airlines.

I know you’re interested in the tremendous amount of higher
education travel that takes place, everything from flying professors to
deliver papers, to flying basketball teams back and forth across the

Well, obviously we’re in the travel business, and in order to
satisfy stockholders we have to be generating revenues, so there’s a
natural need to look for that kind of interchange between a college and
my group.

Our primary mission initially is to establish a relationship that is
win-win. When we start to look at the long-range makeup of our
workforce, we know that in thirty or forty years there is going to be a
significant population shift in this country. So if we’re not paying
attention to the kinds of employees that we are bringing into the
company, we are going to be caught on the short end. We can have the

There are enormous transportation needs on the part of most
educational institutions, and we want to be able to have a relationship
that will allow us to create a special kind of arrangement with that
school so that they would choose American Airlines versus another
carrier. They see a wave of those dollars being returned to the campus.

Do you, in the industry, have any idea how big the higher education
travel market is? Are there any statistics that you are aware of?

In 1995, a study was done by a travel industry association and it
said that just for transportation and lodging alone, African Americans
spent about $4.8 billion. So it’s a pretty significant amount of money.

Tell me a little bit about your Ethnotourism initiative.

Ethnotourism is a concept that was born out of the sense that ethnic
travel really didn’t have a product that was uniquely its own.
Traditionally, when you went into a travel agency and you looked for a
tour or a vacation package, it did not reflect, say, African American
needs. We engaged a group of students from George Mason University to
conduct a three-month survey and do some research on determining
whether that assumption was accurate or not.

What we determined was that the African American customer was
looking for a cultural mix of vacation packages. As a result of that,
we said, “Okay, what would you want to have in that package?” We would
want to involve ourselves in the churches, businesses, cultural
institutions, museums in that community.

Philadelphia had been in the forefront of multicultural tourism for
the past seven or eight years. So we went out and got our own travel
agency, AA Vacations Group, to put it all together so that it is a
product that anyone would buy because it offers you a historical or
cultural experience about African Americans in Philadelphia.

We then began to market it all across American’s system. So that
product now is being sold through our computer systems. That’s what
Ethnotourism is all about. We’re hopeful that it will become a suite of
products – an African American Ethnotour, an Asian American Ethnotour
product, and a Latino American Ethnotour.

How is technology changing your industry?

Technology has changed the industry significantly in the past five
years. The dramatic impact is in the area of providing a much more
cost-effective way of delivering our services.

Cost effective for you or for the customer?

Both, because if it lovers our cost, we are then able to lower the
cost of the services in most cases. I was general manager of National
Airport for a number of years and one of the challenges there was how
do you manage crowd control. Technology has now allowed us to do that
because we have transitioned from an environment that requires a ticket
or a document to be processed to where now it’s completely ticketless
in most cases.

The next advance on that is going to probably be “smart cards,”
where all a person does is call up, make a reservation, show up at the
airport, and go straight to the gate. They never have to involve
themselves with an agent except at the door, where they will swipe the
card. It’s not here yet, but you can see the process.

So going back to where we started, in terms of the students you
recruit, that’s why the emphasis is on smart people because the
technology is evolving so fast. These people are going to have to learn
new things over and over again.

Absolutely. And, also, with regards to making sure that you are
competing to get the best and the brightest, you are also going to have
to have those people who are great forward thinkers, who are very
creative and know how to reposition the product in order for it to be
the first that this customer has access to.

There was a time in higher education when you went to a conference,
you presented your paper before your peers, they critiqued it, and you
flew back home. Today a lot of that is being done on the Internet.
That’s going to result in fewer professors having to travel around the

I don’t think it’s going to have a real negative impact on our
ability to continue to do business. We are going to have to do it
differently, but I don’t think it’s going to cause carriers to lose a
lot of money. I guess a good connection would be with the real
excitement that came about with teleconferencing. It was thought to
surely be the panacea for cutting travel costs, but you still don’t
have that human interaction, which, in most cases, is the thing that
cause wonderful discoveries to occur.

As cost cutters on campus look around, travel always comes up. You don’t think that is a real threat for the airline industry.

No, I don’t. Obviously there are going to be situations where people
will not travel as much, but I think that there is still going to be a
need for groups coming together. The business traveler constitutes
probably 80 percent of the revenue that is generated, even though it
only represents 25 or 26 percent of the total volume. But it generates
the greatest amount of revenue. I’m hoping that, like in the case of
HBCUs and the relationships we’re forging with those institutions, that
we can be quasi-consultants in helping them pick out the most cost
effective way to continue to bring their people together.

So how do you see the future in terms of employment in the industry?

The travel and tourism industry is the largest industry in the
world. It employs more people and generates more income than any other
industry. And over the next five or ten years it will be the fastest
growth industry. It’s expected to be the number one export in America
in the next five years.

When you look at the employee distribution, minorities –
particularly African Americans – are seriously under-represented up and
down the line, but with particular emphasis in the executive branch. We
need to be really busy encouraging minorities to get involved in this
industry at all levels, but particularly in the executive category.

There’s no restriction on academic discipline. It is a global kind
of opportunity for young people and I just really would like to
encourage students and professors to really begin to pay attention to
it, and entrepreneurs.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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