The airline industry has a long memory, so it's unlikely to forget about Doug Parker's drunken driving arrest anytime soon. Parker, the CEO of US Airways ( LCC), was arrested last month, hours after the demise of the carrier's $10 billion bid to take over rival Delta ( DALRQ). The incident is noteworthy because Parker, at 45, has emerged as the new face of the airline industry. Two years ago, the likable executive was running small, financially troubled America West Airlines. In 2005, he took over even more-troubled US Airways, one of the six surviving legacy carriers, and turned the combination into one of the country's most profitable passenger-jet companies. Then in November, Parker launched the bid for Delta, which would have created the world's largest airline. He failed, but his status as an industry leader was enhanced, and US Airways was clearly established as a likely player in the next round of industry consolidation, whenever it comes. Not only Parker's prominence but also the circumstances make the incident compelling. Because the arrest came just after Delta's creditors rejected the merger effort, it's easy to empathize with Parker's decision to have a couple of drinks -- though perhaps not with his decision to get behind the wheel afterward. Who cannot imagine an ironic toast -- "I'm glad that's over" -- after the deal collapsed? Parker had no doubt been run ragged by a doomed two-and-a-half month pursuit that included efforts to win over Delta's creditors, members of Congress, analysts, employees and the media. He was on the defensive last month at a Senate hearing on airline consolidation, where he faced hostile questions with merger opponents looking on.
In an interview with the Arizona Republic, Parker said that after the merger fell through he sent Delta CEO Gerald Grinstein an email in which "I made some quip like, 'At least now we don't have to go to Washington
for another hearing." On a conference call the day before the creditors' decision, Parker seemed at best resigned, at worst weary. "We're not going to keep chasing this thing," he said, noting that he would be content to return to running US Airways if the deal failed. Another intriguing aspect of the incident was its emergence into the 24-hour news cycle. The first story ran Friday morning in the East Valley Tribune, a Phoenix-area newspaper. As soon as it was picked up by the Associated Press, the story became the talk of the airline industry. Then came a surprising public relations gaffe. In a press release, US Airways quoted Parker as saying that he had taken a blood test and that "I believe it is very likely those tests will come back under the legal limit." Within an hour came the announcement of the results, showing Parker to have been above the legal limit. So the airline had to put out a second press release to acknowledge its mistake. On Friday evening came a third press release, prompted by newspaper inquiries, in which Parker confessed to three additional alcohol-related incidents while in his 20s. Fifteen years ago, another prominent airline industry executive was convicted of drunk driving. The executive, Frank Lorenzo, resembles Parker in that he started with a small airline and sought to create the world's biggest through mergers. In fact, Texas Air Group was, briefly, the world's biggest airline company.
In most other ways, Lorenzo, who chose to fight his employees rather than his competitors, was Parker's opposite. Lorenzo, then 52, was stopped by police after turning the wrong way on a one-way street in the early morning hours of July 28, 1992, in the Montrose area of Houston. Arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated, he subsequently pleaded no contest. The incident was widely reported at the time, although press coverage ceased once Lorenzo was convicted. Yet the story became part of airline industry lore, just as the Parker case will.