Dr. Rob Britton: A Flight Through Leadership and Transformation in Airline Industry

Dr. Rob Britton, Expert in the Airline Industry, talks to Gernot Kapteina, Founder of OYSTEC, about his deep insights and forward-thinking strategies in aviation, shedding light on the revolutionary impacts of digitalization, AI, and crisis management, with a specific emphasis on how he aided American Airlines in recovering from the events of September 11. The conversation is a compelling showcase of expertise and enthusiasm, highlighting his distinguished role in understanding the history of airline industry and shaping its future.

Today, I'm delighted to be speaking with Dr. Britton, a distinguished expert in the American and global airline industry from Washington, D.C. Rob, our paths first crossed during your guest lectures for the MBA program at McGill's Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, Canada, which I found particularly insightful. Reflecting on our initial encounter, can we start our interview with you sharing what motivated you to engage with the MBA students and share your extensive industry experiences?

Dr. Britton: Gernot, I’m happy to do this interview with you. I've been a guest lecturer for more than 30 years, starting in the late 1980s at Cornell University. My first experience in a classroom as a guest professor was an enlightening one. Since then, I have shared my knowledge of airline management with students and have continually broadened my topics. I relish sharing a wealth of information. What motivates me is the joy of giving back, the concept of "paying it forward" with the knowledge, insights, and values I've amassed over my lifetime. – this has been my driving force, whether at McGill a few years ago or at the other 100+ business schools I've visited.  

Throughout your career, have you worked with any notable figures in the airline industry, and were there particular insights or inspirations you gained from them?

Dr. Britton: Yes, there have been several. What propels me forward is the inspiration I've drawn from genuine leaders in the airline business. I'd like to highlight three individuals:

First, Stephen Wolf. My first job was in 1984 at Republic Airline, a small, struggling airline based in Minnesota. Stephen, who hired me, became a real inspiration because of his inclusive leadership style. He was instrumental in transforming Republic’s culture in many positive ways, and developing a strategy to save the airline from failing. I've kept in touch with him through the years and found his open nature and successful leadership style deeply inspiring.

Then, there is Bob Baker. He was the COO at American Airlines for much of my tenure there. Bob was genuinely kind and modest, without a big ego. He was friendly, outgoing, and had a knack for connecting with people at all levels. His approachability, for example his practice of sitting with regular people for lunch in the company cafeteria, left a lasting impression on me.

And then there was Bob Crandall. He was the CEO of American Airlines during the 1980s and 1990s. I worked for him in the last two years of his tenure. He was a tough boss but an amazing person, modest and open to debate. His willingness to engage in discussions, even with differing views, provided valuable lessons in leadership.

Looking back to your early days in the airline industry, what was your first role and what were the key takeaways that have stayed with you?

Dr. Britton: I began in September 1984 as the Manager of Sales Training at Republic. I was responsible for both initial and recurring training for the sales organization. This was a period of transition, especially after the 1978 airline industry deregulation in the US. I managed the education and learning for our team to adapt to a new, competitive marketplace. Two key takeaways from this experience were the importance of being a change agent, and the need for disciplined budget management, especially in a financially struggling company. These principles have stayed with me throughout my career, teaching me to be careful with expenditures and to justify every expense from a zero-based budget perspective.

After the events of September 11, how did you approach the challenge of rebuilding the brand and trust in American Airlines?

Dr. Britton: That's a great question. Two weeks after the attacks, I was appointed Head of Advertising and Marketing Planning at American Airlines, to be part of a team that would rebuild our brand. The process was disciplined and research-driven. Before taking any action, we conducted extensive market research to understand public perceptions and trust levels. Surprisingly, we found that people didn’t blame us and still trusted us, indicating a strong goodwill reservoir towards our company. Based on this, we developed marketing campaigns and informed various strategies across the company, from pricing to loyalty programs and media advertising. This comprehensive approach enabled us to rebuild our revenue base within about 10 months following the attacks.

How has your leadership style evolved in response to the significant changes within the airline industry over the years?

Dr. Britton: Honestly, I don’t think my leadership style has changed much. I’ve always believed that effective leadership isn't overly complex, but requires core values like authenticity, the willingness to communicate, and honesty. There’s much debate about whether effective leaders are born or made. I think it's a bit of both. We're born with a set of values, but these are shaped by our experiences and the people who influence us. My leadership has been consistent over the years, focusing on being open and approachable, traits I also emphasize in my speeches and training sessions about leadership.

With AirLearn, you have provided solutions across aviation and travel sectors. Can you share a particularly complex challenge you helped a client overcome?

Dr. Britton: The best example I can use here involves consulting with new companies and startups. Much of my work with these organizations has centered around general management approaches. New companies, by definition, often lack managerial and leadership experience. They might have a brilliant idea, like a killer app or a piece of innovative technology, but they lack knowledge in areas like managing people, budgeting, and other essential business practices. What I bring to these startups is knowledge about how to run these companies effectively, drawing on my experiences from established companies like American Airlines. One common piece of advice concerns hiring. In the world of startups, there's often a tendency to hire narrowly for specific skill sets. I advise broadening their focus a bit, because bringing in people with a broader range of skills can add significant value to the organization – they can learn the details!

Kapteina: How have innovations evolved in the airline industry in recent years, especially considering physical constraints and environmental challenges?

Dr. Britton: That's a really good question. The airline industry, by its nature of physical movement, faces certain constraints that limit how quickly and extensively it can innovate. For example, the speed of aircraft hasn't increased significantly in the last 60 years. There are also environmental considerations, like the carbon footprint, which is a growing concern. Much of the innovation in the last 15 years has been about understanding these physical realities and working within them. We've seen significant advancements in leveraging IT and digitalization in internal processes. For example, airlines invest enormously in AI and machine learning to optimize operations and recovery, particularly in response to disruptions like weather events. There's also been a lot of innovation in customer-facing processes. The ability to check in via mobile, for instance, required significant innovation. So, while the physical limits of the industry constrain us, we leverage digital solutions to improve efficiency and customer experience.

What essential lesson do you aim to impart to MBA students about crisis management in the airline industry?

Dr. Britton: When I teach courses on Crisis Management in the US, UK, and elsewhere, I emphasize best practices that seem obvious but are often overlooked. The best way to manage a crisis is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Preparation is crucial, regardless of a company's size. Every organization needs to have a crisis management plan that embraces a full range of stakeholders. This 360-degree approach to stakeholder management is essential. Communication best practices are also key. Many companies try to minimize communication during a crisis, thinking they can keep things quiet. But transparency is essential, and the notion of keeping secrets inside a company is often misguided. Another best practice is to conduct a performance audit after the crisis is over, to assess how the company managed the crisis. This helps prepare for the next crisis, because there will be a “next time.”

Could you outline the core components of an effective crisis management framework in the aviation sector?

Dr. Britton: Absolutely. An effective crisis management framework in aviation requires a multi-faceted approach. Firstly, it's crucial to have an immediate response plan that can be activated at a moment's notice. This includes having a dedicated crisis management team and clear protocols for different types of crises. The second component is stakeholder management. In aviation, the range of stakeholders is broad, from passengers and employees to regulators and the media. Effective communication with these stakeholders is vital. Another component is the ongoing assessment and adaptation of the response plan as the situation evolves. Finally, after the crisis, as mentioned above, conducting a thorough analysis and debrief is essential to learn from the experience and improve future crisis responses. This post-crisis phase should include performance audits and feedback loops to refine the crisis management strategy.

How has your volunteer work, particularly in educational institutions, influenced your professional journey in the airline industry?

Dr. Britton: Volunteer work has been a cornerstone of my personal and professional development. Through my involvement with educational institutions, I've embraced the concept of servant leadership. This has not only enriched my life but has also deeply influenced my professional approach in the airline industry. Engaging with students and sharing knowledge has reinforced the importance of mentorship and giving back. Furthermore, volunteering in different capacities, such as at food banks or in building projects, has provided me with unique perspectives that have shaped my leadership style. It's a constant reminder that true leadership is about serving others and contributing positively to the community.  Simply put, every volunteer receives far more than she or he gives.

 That is a very authentic side of yours. Let's talk about another facet: What skills from your airline industry roles have been most valuable in transitioning to consultancy and academia?

Dr. Britton: In transitioning to consultancy and academia, the most valuable skills I've brought from the airline industry are communication, both verbal and written, and critical thinking. Throughout my career in the airline industry, being able to clearly articulate ideas and strategies was crucial. This skill has been equally important in my consultancy work, where clear communication is key to understanding and solving complex problems. Critical thinking, on the other hand, has enabled me to approach problems from various angles, assess situations objectively, and devise effective solutions. This skill is particularly useful in academia, where analytical and evidence-based approaches are fundamental.

What do you consider the most pivotal change in the airline industry during your career, and how have you adapted?

Dr. Britton: The most pivotal change in the airline industry during my career has been the shift from a state-owned, government-regulated model to a competitive, market-driven one. This transition has fundamentally altered how airlines operate and compete. Adapting to this change required a dynamic approach and a willingness to embrace new strategies and technologies. My focus has been on helping airlines and suppliers understand and navigate this new competitive landscape, emphasizing innovation, customer service, and operational efficiency. This has involved staying abreast of industry trends, continuously learning, and being willing to challenge traditional ways of thinking.

What piece of advice would you consider indispensable for individuals just starting out in the aviation industry?

Dr. Britton: For those just starting out in the aviation industry, my advice would be to embrace the culture of learning and adaptability. The aviation industry is dynamic and constantly evolving, so being open to new experiences and willing to learn is crucial. Networking and building relationships within the industry can provide invaluable insights and opportunities. Additionally, developing a broad skill set and being open to different roles and responsibilities within the industry can greatly enhance one's career prospects. It's also important to understand the unique challenges of the aviation industry, including safety, regulatory, and environmental aspects, and to approach these challenges with a problem-solving mindset.

 Good points! Let's talk now about the process of digital transformation: How have you seen B2C and B2B marketing in aviation change with the advent of digital platforms and data analytics?

Dr. Britton: The advent of digital platforms and data analytics has revolutionized B2C and B2B aviation marketing. These technologies have enabled airlines to better understand and engage with their customers, offering personalized experiences and targeted marketing strategies. Data analytics has provided insights into customer preferences and behaviors, allowing for more effective segmentation and tailored offerings. In B2B marketing, digital platforms have facilitated closer collaboration and communication between airlines and their partners, improving supply chain efficiency and creating new business opportunities. The integration of digital technologies has also enhanced customer service, enabling airlines to respond more quickly and effectively to customer inquiries and feedback. Overall, digital platforms and data analytics have brought a new level of sophistication and efficiency to airline marketing.

Can you share a defining moment from your airline career that has been instrumental in shaping your approach to leadership training?

Dr. Britton: One defining moment in my airline career that significantly shaped my approach to leadership training was navigating the challenges of significant industry downturns, such as the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as well as managing through economic recessions (as in the early 1990s and after the 2008 financial meltdown). These experiences taught me the importance of resilience, clear communication, and the ability to make difficult decisions under pressure. They highlighted the need for leaders to be adaptable, empathetic, and capable of guiding their teams through uncertain times. This has influenced my leadership training approach, where I emphasize the development of these qualities in future leaders. It's about preparing them not just for the day-to-day challenges of the industry but also for the unforeseen crises that require strong, decisive leadership.

Managing diverse teams is a hallmark of the airline industry. What strategies have you employed to lead effectively in such environments?

Dr. Britton: Leading diverse teams in the airline industry requires a deep understanding of and respect for cultural differences. My strategy has been to foster an inclusive environment where every team member feels valued and heard. This involves active listening, encouraging open communication, and creating opportunities for team members to share their perspectives and experiences. I've also focused on building trust and mutual respect within the team, recognizing and celebrating diversity as a strength that brings different viewpoints and ideas to the table. Additionally, providing ongoing training and development opportunities has been key to ensuring that all team members have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Ultimately, leading diverse teams effectively is about creating a culture of collaboration, respect, and continuous learning.

As the airline industry emerges from the pandemic, what key trends do you foresee shaping its future in the coming years?

Dr. Britton: As the airline industry recovers from the pandemic, several key trends are likely to shape its future.  First, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies, and this trend will continue. Airlines will increasingly leverage digital tools for everything from contactless check-in and boarding to improved customer communication and personalization. A second trend is the shift in travel patterns, with a potential increase in leisure travel and a changes in demand for business travel. Airlines may need to adjust their route networks and services to cater to these changing demands. Finally, sustainability will continue to be a major focus, with airlines investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft, exploring alternative fuels, and implementing initiatives to reduce their environmental impact.

How do you perceive the role of Artificial Intelligence, AI, in reshaping various aspects of the airline industry, from customer service to operational efficiency?

Dr. Britton: AI is playing an increasingly important role in reshaping various aspects of the airline industry. In customer service, AI is being used to provide personalized experiences, improve response times, and enhance overall customer satisfaction. For instance, AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can handle a wide range of customer inquiries efficiently, freeing up human agents to focus on more complex issues. In terms of operational efficiency, AI is being utilized to optimize flight routes, reduce fuel consumption, improve maintenance procedures, and help recover from weather disruptions. AI algorithms can analyze vast amounts of data to predict maintenance needs, thereby reducing downtime and extending the lifespan of aircraft. Additionally, AI is being used in revenue management to dynamically adjust pricing and maximize profitability. Overall, AI is transforming the airline industry by enabling more efficient, responsive, and customer-focused operations. 

As we conclude our conversation, I've heard that you are also a renowned speaker, sharing your insights on leadership through speeches like "10 Things I Learned About Leadership." Could you tell us more about this aspect of your career and how others can benefit from your experience?

Dr. Britton: Yes, that's correct. Aside from my roles in the airline industry and academia, I've been delivering speeches about leadership around the world. My talk "10 Things I Learned About Leadership" encapsulates the key lessons from a long and varied career. These insights are drawn from real-world experiences and are designed to inspire and guide current and aspiring leaders in any industry. It's a way to share the distilled wisdom of my professional journey, offering practical advice and strategies for effective leadership.

That sounds very valuable. How can individuals or organizations interested in your speaking engagements get in touch with you?

Dr. Britton: Interested parties can book me for speaking engagements through my website. I tailor my talks to suit various audiences, from corporate events to educational institutions. There is a link to my website including booking information.

 We will add your link to your answer. For now, let me ask you a final question: what message or piece of advice would you like to leave with the readers of our interview?

Dr. Britton: My final message to readers interested in becoming professionals in the airline industry is to embrace change and be adaptable. The airline industry is dynamic and constantly evolving, so being flexible and open to new ideas is crucial for success. Stay curious and committed to continuous learning, as this will help you navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Build strong networks and relationships within your company and the broader industry because these connections will provide support, guidance, and new perspectives.

Rob, thank you for taking the time for this insightful interview!



Dr. Britton and Kapteina in the course of the interview, November 2023


Link: Dr. Rob Britton's Leadership Offerings Website (English)


Copyright: American Airlines, McGill, Desautels Faculty of Management, Cornell University, Republic Airline, AirLearn and other company names, institutions and products mentioned are registered trademarks of the respective organizations and have been used in the creation of this interview. Parts have been optimized with AI technologies from OpenAI Inc. and DeepL SE.


Tags: Interview