Thomas Plaskett, Founder of American Airlines’ Frequent-Flyer Program and Former Pan Am CEO, Dies at 77

By Jonathan Spira on 11 July 2021
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Thomas Plaskett, an airline industry visionary who led both Pan American World Airways and Continental Airlines and created the American Airlines AAdvantage frequent-flyer program, died on June 24 at the age of 77.  He had been undergoing treatment for cancer at the time of his death.

Mr. Plaskett, a Harvard MBA, joined American Airlines four years before the deregulation of airfares changed the playing field forever. He moved up the ranks at the airline, becoming senior vice president of marketing. It was in that position that he created the AAdvantage frequent-flyer program, the industry’s first comprehensive program that tracked members’ miles with the airline’s mainframe and attempted to keep them loyal to the brand.  Other airlines quickly copied what has become a ubiquitous concept.

“We are attempting to build brand loyalty in a commodity market,” Mr. Plaskett told the New York Times in a 1982 interview.

Unable to rise beyond that position at American given the presence of industry pioneer Robert Crandall, who was chairman, CEO, and president, Mr. Plaskett jumped ship to Continental in 1986 as CEO.

At the time Continental, then owned by Texas International Airlines, was combining its operations with People Express, Frontier Airlines, New York Air, and several commuter carriers, troubled carriers all.  After eight months at the helm, Mr. Plaskett left under pressure.

Mr. Plaskett arrived at Pan Am in January 1988 as a kind of savior, carrying the titles of chairman and CEO. Pan Am, which lacked an extensive domestic network despite its merger with National, was hemorrhaging cash and battling its unions. Despite its extensive international routes, the lack of a strong domestic network meant it had little feeder traffic, something its competitors, albeit with fewer international routes, did have.

Within weeks, Mr. Plaskett had begun to hire more flight attendants to improve in-flight service and he began to refurbish the storied airline’s cabins, which hadn’t been updated despite ongoing wear and tear.

Mr. Plaskett’s efforts panned out but the improvement was short lived.  On December 21, 1988, just under 12 months into his tenure at the World’s Most Experienced Airline, a terrorist bomb brought down Flight 103, Clipper Maid of the Seas, a Boeing 747, over Lockerbie, Scotland, which incurred 270 fatalities including 11 on the ground.

Even as Pan Am employees remained in shock from the incident, grieving for their co-workers and passengers, travelers saw the airline as a potential terrorist target and cancelled reservations left and right.  Mr. Plaskett sold off Pan Am’s London Routes to United Airlines in October 1990 and the remainder of the airline’s Atlantic Division to Delta Air Lines on November 1 in an attempt to raise cash to avert bankruptcy which the airline did file for in January 1991.

Mr. Plaskett was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on December 24, 1943.  He studied industrial engineering at the General Motors Institute of Technology, now known as Kettering University, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1966.  He later earned an MBA at Harvard Business School.

Jonathan Spira contributed reporting to this story.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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