We learned today that Maya Leibman, CIO of American Airlines, is stepping down from her role with the airline. Normally, this wouldn’t be the type of story I would cover, an airline exec stepping down. But, Maya Leibman is no normal airline exec.
I had the good fortune to meet Maya for the first time when she served as President of the airline’s loyalty program, AAdvantage. While I don’t recall the exact date it was in early 2011. Maya was attending a conference that I was helping organize. Since I was the only AAdvantage Executive Platinum member amongst our group I was put in charge of greeting Maya and making sure she made it to her speaking gig on time.
I hadn’t met that many airline executives at that point in my life. The ones I had met were what you might imagine of a typical executive. These were smart folks, many of whom really liked to hear themselves speak. Maya? Well, she was…..Maya. She spoke her mind and wasn’t afraid to disagree.
She was asked a question onstage about AAdvantage’s plan to expire miles if someone didn’t have any activity on their account over the course of 18 months. I’m paraphrasing here, but her answer was short and sweet, “If someone doesn’t have any need to earn or redeem miles with us for 18 months, we don’t have much of a relationship, do we?”
When we were done with the day, Maya turned to me and said, “I think I have you points and miles folks figured out. I want to write an open letter to the community. Would you make sure it gets published?”
I poked around trying to find that letter. Alas, I can’t seem to put my hands on it. I recall one hilarious line, “You points and miles folks are the ones who took apart your mom’s toaster to see how it worked.” A lot of truth there. That evening, Maya also made an entire audience laugh and gasp with astonishment telling a joke that I won’t repeat here but will never forget.
During her time in AAdvantage, she quashed the conventional wisdom of quiet executives making decisions behind the scenes. Here’s a video I found on YouTube from almost a decade ago that illustrates her personality:
Well, Maya was bound for greater things. She moved on from running AAdvantage very quickly, ultimately ascending to the role of Chief Information Officer. She has an incredible awareness and attention to detail. I recall a number of years ago that I was attending a leadership conference that American Airlines was hosting near their headquarters in Dallas. As a “member of the media” I had been invited to the public portion of the event. Even though I didn’t tell Maya I was attending, I received an e-mail from her late the night before the conference started. She mentioned she had been scanning the attendance list and spotted my name, hoping we would get a chance to say hello in person. This was a “C-level” exec, late at night prior to needing to be on stage for the world’s largest airline, dropping a quick note to a little blogger she’d met a few times.
This was also at a time when the airline was figuring out how to integrate two separate airlines (US Airways and American) into one. As I recall, there were over 700 unique systems that the airlines needed to figure out how to merge/make talk to each other. Maya was the one in charge of making it happen. Previous airlines that had attempted similar conversions had failed miserably, leading to massive meltdowns affecting passengers all over their network.
When the time came to switch over some of the most critical systems at American, the big event was pretty much a non-event. There were very few reports of any sort of disruption. I’m sure there was plenty of chaos and caffeine at AA HQ, but that was largely unseen by the public. That’s due to the work of thousands of employees, to be sure. But, it’s also a testament to the leadership of Maya Leibman.
Maya has proven to be an effective leader in the airline industry, one where men had dominated the leadership ranks for decades. In 2018, before the pandemic brought travel to a screeching halt, I was headed to Dallas to conduct a site visit for the Freddie Awards. I dropped Maya a line, would she have some time to say hello while I was in town? She graciously carved 30 minutes out of her schedule, something she had done on previous occasions when I had inquired.
Maya always asked me the same question every time we had the opportunity to sit down, even though I had so many questions for her. She always asked me how I thought AA was doing. What could they do better? What were competitors doing better? In virtually every conversation I can recall with Maya over the years she has always sought out information, feedback on how to be better.
On this day, I had a favor to ask. Maya had recently been the feature of an article in the Wall Street Journal. Maya is also a parent, and I hoped to appeal to that side of her with a request to autograph the article for our daughter. A middle-school student at the time, my daughter had a rough idea who Maya was but only because of her dad’s nerdy obsession with travel. She did understand that Maya was someone she could look up to and further proof that our daughter could break through glass ceilings if she put her mind to it. I pulled the WSJ article out of my backpack and presented it to Maya. She thought for a few seconds, grabbed a marker from her desk and obliged my request.
The Final Two Pennies
Reports are that Maya is staying with American Airlines, though moving to a different role. That’s good news for American, as I have confidence she’ll excel at whatever role she’s in. In the interim, there are big shoes to fill, just like when she moved on from AAdvantage.
Did you enjoy this post? Please share it! There’s plenty of ways to do that below.
And, I hope you’ll check out my podcast, Miles To Go. We cover the latest travel news, tips and tricks every week so you can save money while you travel better. From Disney to Dubai, San Francisco to Sydney, American Airlines to WestJet, we’ve got you covered!