How Powerful are Frequent Flyer Program Heads? AAdvantage Has a New President

We travelers focused on frequent flyer programs tend to think of those programs as central to airlines. If I am asked to review an airline, my inclination will be to weight it 50% for the flying experience and 50% for the frequent flyer program. For my travel decisions, frequent flyer program is the primacy factor. We are outliers. Airlines certainly don’t think this way.

Yesterday American Airlines announced ‘executive appointments to its marketing team.’ Gary and Ben were both quick to offer congratulations to Bridget Blaise-Shamai, new President of AAdvantage. Both are flyers of American. Among US airlines, American, has been most publicly accessible to bloggers and the frequent traveler segment, so it is no surprise they have had interactions with her and her predecessor.

While complementary of Ms. Blaise-Shamai’s predecessor, Suzanne Rubin, Ben commented, “While I’m ultimately not happy about the direction the program took (by being completely uncreative and copying what Delta and United did), I almost got the sense that Suzanne wasn’t a fan of it either, and that some decisions were made above her.”

I  have not courted extensive relationships with airline representatives. I have met some at Freddie Awards. What I hear when I meet insiders, or sort-of insiders, is that the big changes are typically taken way above the frequent flyer program head on the organization chart. A plea to not shoot the messenger/public face is added.

Let’s look at the case of AAdvantage to see what it indicates. I’ll sprinkle in commentary from my recent employment at a similarly large company in an unrelated industry.

President of AAdvantage sounds important.

Titles are misleading.

My prior employer had many Presidents reporting to Presidents who were themselves not reporting to the CEO. New HR then tried to rationalize titles by removing those that did indicate something. Then the new HR chief departed.

The announcement, along with that for several related positions, was deemed worthy of a press release.

Every press release is a big production involving many people and the risk of public scrutiny or mistakes. That suggests it is a role AA values enough to communicate publicly.

AA’s published executive team has 9 members and AAdvantage is not there.

This should dispel any customer assumptions that AAdvantage as a standalone is as important to the CEO as it is to them. Whatever is most important to CEOs reports directly to CEOs. AAdvatange sits somewhere in the marketing organization under the SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, Andrew Nocella. It is not a standalone plank that the CEO pays direct management attention.

AA Executives

How far down on the organization chart is AAdvantage?

The press release from Mr. Nocella announces appointments that directly report to him for:

  • SVP Marketing & Loyalty (SVP reporting to a SVP)
  • VP Network Planning
  • VP Alliances & Partnerships.

No public indication of other roles reporting to Mr. Nocella so we don’t know how many areas he divides his territory.

We are two steps down the ladder from the CEO and one more to go.

Here we find VP Loyalty and President of AAdvantage:

  • reporting to SVP Marketing & Loyalty
  • who reports to SVP and CMO
  • who reports to CEO

In my prior role, depending on the quarterly re-organization, I bounced around from 3rd level down (where AAdvantage now sits) to 5th level down, all without my role fundamentally changing. I was never at risk of seeing the CEO unless I managed to do something gigantically wrong. I rarely glimpsed the people who cycled in and out on the level below the CEO.

Each step down is a huge organizational distance. Professionals at a level 3 steps down may be competent and accomplished. Regardless, anything major they seek to accomplish must wind its way up the chain of command and compete at each step with competing peer-level interests.

It also indicates that frequent flyer program management is not a career end goal itself in organization terms, rather a step along the marketing track for ambitious executives. Frequent flyer program heads may seek to continue up the ladder. The prior turnover of this position to Ms. Rubin was prompted by the then-AAdvantage head Maya Liebman’s promotion to Chief Information Officer.

We are not as important as we think we are, and our concerns are not as important to airlines as we want them to be.

Duh, airlines keep telling us that!

I wish Ms. Blaise-Shamai the best on a job that looks a challenging juggle of competing external and internal interests. It’s the kind of job that probably is really fun in the good times such as doing special things for customers and hearing their appreciation for it.

We shouldn’t expect her to have a magic wand. We can hope she will advocate for us.

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  • Michael

    having never worked for a large organization, really enjoyed reading this post, as well as your analysis of where those Ritz certs can ACTUALLY be used. a healthy dose of skepticism is useful, and you seem to employ it whereas some of the other BoardingArea authors do not. much appreciated.

  • Jackson

    Look at all that diversity. 4 of 9 are Jewish but no persons of color. Hmmmm

  • @Jackson – as lacking as it is, the amount of gender diversity is probably high for Fortune 500 corporations. I do not think AA would be an outlier if you stacked up all the pictures.

  • @Michael – appreciate it. Different perspective from different experiences, perhaps. Some are younger or less (travel) experienced so focus on what theoretically can be done, rather than speaking from experience of having done it or similar.

  • Greg

    Thank you for not being another fAAn boy.

    Well thought and pragmatic.

  • @Greg – well, I have been on their planes.

  • Yolaviajera

    @Jackson — Antisemitic much? How do you know who’s Jewish and who’s not? What is the metric you’re using to arrive at that conclusion? Don’t tell me it’s their last names, but that is the biggest crock of … and usually will lead you down the wrong path. But more importantly, who gives a f*ck about that? The point of the post was that the head loyalty program doesn’t sit with the big boys at the table.