Fast 5: American Airlines COO David Seymour on 737 MAX’s Return

David Seymour, American Airlines COO. Photo credit: Lee Ann Shay

American Airlines COO David Seymour talked to Lee Ann Shay onboard a non-commercial Boeing 737 MAX flight from Tulsa to Dallas Ft. Worth on Dec. 2, in advance of the aircraft’s return to revenue service on Dec. 29. Seymour was promoted to COO in June from senior VP of operations.

In your new role as COO, what are the primary opportunities and challenges you face given the many changes at the airline due to the pandemic?

The important thing is that collaboration is going on. We’re taking advantage of the restructuring, which includes not only me but also my counterparts who oversee the revenue side and customers. We’re all working in concert. It’s important to get all of the operations team pulling together in one direction. I’m not saying we didn’t in the past, but we have more of an opportunity under this organization. 

What changes will allow it to operate more efficiently?

There’s a big push to get decisions made at the right level. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of team members and management and support staff as part of the reductions, but this has allowed us to be more efficient and quicker at making decisions. We’ve seen some good gains, whether it’s software technology that we have at airports or finishing and accelerating the Tech Ops systems integration that we’ll finish in a couple months. It’s having a huge impact in our ability to generate operational and cost efficiencies. 

How was the Tech Ops systems integration been accelerated?

It’s the teams working together. Obviously, fleets that will be retired didn’t have to move over, but that wasn’t a big chunk of it. We got a lot smarter about how to accelerate the work we needed to do, because we realized that the sooner we got all of the aircraft into one system, the more efficiencies we’d get. We partnered with our IT team who worked through some technology enhancements to speed up that process.

Speaking of speeding things up, why is American pushing to get the 737 MAX back into revenue service so quickly—faster than other U.S. carriers? Is it so you can retire older 737-800s or another reason? There are a lot of rumors floating around.

Our whole effort here is not so that we could be the first. We will happen to be the first. We have been following a process of working with the FAA, Boeing and our team members. Our pilots are ready. They’ve gone through the training and have provided feedback on that. On the maintenance side, we’ve worked with Boeing on how to manage service bulletins. The entire team—pilots, mechanics, flight attendants—say the plane is ready. If the plane is ready, why not fly it? It’s more cost efficient to operate. It’s greener because it puts out less emissions. We still have a number of aircraft that are parked and if we didn’t fly the MAX I’d have to pull some NGs (737-800s) out of storage. Why not put a more efficient aircraft in service? This is not about a race. There is nothing about safety that is a race. There is nothing about training pilots to be quick. You don’t maintain aircraft to be the quickest. You do it right, you do it safely and you comply with the regulations. That is what we’re doing.

You also don’t build confidence in the aircraft if it’s sitting on the ground. The only way you build confidence is to fly it. Just like we’re on this flight, every flight and every passenger who flies on it and says it is safe, that builds confidence. Until then, we’re offering flexibility to our passengers.

It seems like there’s been a lot of collaboration between American’s pilots, mechanics and flight attendants around the MAX. Are there lessons learned through this process that you’ll incorporate into operations going forward?

The big thing I’m pushing for the organization is collaboration. We have a lot of stuff going on in the organization, including dealing with COVID-19 testing and how we work with other countries to re-open routes. That requires us to look at operations, customer service, government affairs and get the right people at the right level to collaborate. Those are things we’re doing right now. The MAX is an example of it. At the onset of this effort, we made it very clear that we’re not going to have meetings with Boeing or the FAA about the MAX unless our pilots, our union safety teams and the ad hoc committee that formed are there. We then added flight attendants and those groups spent a day in Tulsa (at Tech Ops) talking to the mechanics who were maintaining the aircraft and doing the modifications, so they could hear and see it from the eyes of the person doing the work. You’re going to see more of that at American coming out of the pandemic. 

Lee Ann Shay

As executive editor of MRO and business aviation, Lee Ann Shay directs Aviation Week's coverage of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), including Inside MRO, and business aviation, including BCA.