The gig: Suzanne Boda, 57, is American Airlines’ senior vice president for Los Angeles. That means the buck stops with her when it comes to the airline’s day-to-day operations at Los Angeles International Airport, as well as all local government relations and community outreach. She was named to the post in May 2017.
American Airlines is the largest carrier at LAX, with as many as 200 daily flights and 7,000 workers. The carrier is in a heated battle to hold its position of dominance, with rivals Delta and United working to get the upper hand — and for good reason. LAX is a key U.S. point of entry for travelers from Asia and Latin America.
Student abroad: Raised in small towns in southern Minnesota, Boda is the daughter of a minister and a homemaker, who told her that she could pick any career but she first needed to see the world. She obliged by studying in Japan for a year in high school and later returning to Japan for a semester in college.
Seeking her path: Boda earned a degree in Asian studies and Spanish from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. “I graduated from college, but I didn’t have a clear direction other than it had to involve some sort of travel and the ability to work in an environment that was fulfilling,” she said.
Impulse move: During a year of living as a self-described “ski bum” in Colorado, Boda was in an airport with a friend and decided to apply for a job with Northwest Airlines, hoping the move would let her travel for a living. She filled out a job application at the counter and was working for the carrier within a week as a Japanese interpreter at the airline lounge in Minneapolis.
Career path: Starting in 1983, Boda advanced through the ranks at Northwest Airlines, primarily holding positions in customer service, in places such as Minnesota, Los Angeles and Japan. She moved over to rival US Airways in 2008 to oversee operations, cargo and customer service, among other positions. When American Airlines merged with US Airways in 2013, she became an employee of the biggest carrier in the world. Before taking her current post, she was a senior vice president overseeing American Airlines’ biggest domestic airports.
Turbulent time: Boda’s career with Northwest and US Airways spanned tumultuous years for the industry, between the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Great Recession that began in late 2007. A trade group for the U.S. airline industry estimates that the country’s biggest carriers lost a combined $65 billion in the eight years after the 9/11 attacks.
Industry turnaround: The industry has posted strong profits since then, thanks to the long economic recovery, lower fuel costs and a series of mergers that have put control of nearly 80% of all domestic travel in the hands of four carriers: American, United, Delta and Southwest. “It’s unfortunate that some airlines had to go away or were consumed by other airlines, but at the end of the day, we have right-sized the airlines,” she said.
Marching orders: To ensure American stays on top at LAX, the airline created the position of senior vice president for Los Angeles, assigning the post to Boda because of her background and experience. “It is our preeminent gateway to Asia from the U.S., one of the fastest-growing travel markets in the world,” she said.
Top dog: At LAX, American Airlines controls about 21% of all operations, including passenger and cargo flights, but Delta Air Lines and United aren’t far behind. Boda said growth will be difficult until next year when the airport is scheduled to open a $1.6-billion “midfield” terminal with a dozen new gates. To appeal to well-heeled travelers, American recently opened a new high-end lounge at the airport that includes a restaurant and bar. “The biggest challenge is just the physical space,” she said. “We really are just trying to continue to provide great service but also look for ways to expand our operations.”
Management style: Boda believes if she treats her workers with respect, they will treat the airline’s customers well. When she was young, her father’s career as a minister meant he moved the family often. Before each move, Boda said, her father told her: “You never lose your friends, you just gain more friends.” As she has bounced around the airline industry over the last 35 years, Boda has made friends and learned to appreciate fellow employees in all positions. “It’s a big world, but it’s a small industry,” she added.
Male dominated: When Boda started out, she said, she would enter a conference room filled with hundreds of airline executives and supervisors and notice she was one of only a handful of women. “There were challenges along the way,” she said. “I remember being told, ‘Maybe you need to be thinking about a different career path.’ ” But Boda said women have made big strides in the industry. Two of American Airlines’ top six executives are now women. None of the top U.S. airlines is led by a woman, but it’s only a matter of time, she said. Her role models include aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “Those women worked in very male-dominated worlds, yet they stuck to their principles about how to live and how to treat people,” she said.