Picture of Gerard Arpey
Thanks to the Academy Award-winning film The Aviator, the contributions of Howard Hughes to the aviation world have received a lot of attention recently. I’d like to shine a light on a man named Cyrus Rowlett Smith, who, while less famous, and certainly less wealthy, than Hughes, put just as big a stamp on our industry. Better known to everyone at American Airlines as “Mr. C.R.,” Smith became president of American ­Airlines in 1934, at age 35, and led our airline for an incredible 34 years.

Born in 1899 in Minerva, Texas, C.R. — the eldest of seven children — became man of the house at age nine, when his father left. Working as an office boy, cotton picker, store clerk, bookkeeper, and bank teller didn’t leave him much time for school, but Smith made it to the University of Texas, earning a business degree. After graduating, he was named assistant treasurer of the Texas-­Louisiana Power Company.

In 1928, the power company’s president purchased a local airmail carrier — Texas Air Transport (TAT) — and asked Smith to manage it. He was reluctant but quickly fell in love with aviation. He even learned how to fly airplanes and repair them. A company called Aviation Corporation bought TAT and made Smith vice president of its southern division. In 1934, when several carriers combined to form American Airlines, he was named its first president.

At the time, American Airlines was a fragmented collection of small, disorganized, and unprofitable carriers, transporting mostly mail. That changed in a hurry. In his first few years at the helm, Smith successfully ­combined the airline’s various routes into a cohesive, smooth-running network. He also standardized the airline’s collection of airplanes with a fleet of brand-new DC-3 aircraft. In a first for an airline executive, Smith played an influential role in the design of that airplane, which would become the workhorse of the industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

Smith realized that the key to American’s future was attracting passengers, not mail contracts. During the industry’s infancy, much of the public was afraid to fly, so he became a zealot about passenger safety, personally convincing customers that flying was safe and exhorting colleagues around the industry to make it even safer.

Smith was also a marketing innovator, launching the industry’s first major advertising campaign, first credit program, and first customer lounges. While other airlines drowned in red ink, in 1936, American reported its first profit (a whopping $4,600). A year later, American served its millionth customer, and by the end of the 1930s, the airline was carrying one-third of the nation’s domestic air travelers.

During World War II, he became Major General Smith, Deputy Commander of the Air Transport Command, the military airline organized to fulfill the Army’s air-­transport needs. For his leadership of that vast enterprise, Smith received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and the Air Medal.

Smith returned to American in 1945 and continued to serve as chief executive until 1968, when he was named secretary of commerce by President Johnson. The limits of this column prevent me from doing justice to the litany of innovations American achieved during that time period, but one indisputable highlight was the launch of the nation’s first transcontinental jet service in 1959.

Despite his towering accomplishments, Mr. C.R. is remembered just as well, and just as fondly, for the type of man he was. His ­insistence that American acquire the best technology, and the most modern fleet, was balanced by an equally passionate belief in the old-fashioned values of safety, courtesy, and customer service. He could be gruff, but he was always fair, and the customers and employees of American Airlines came first.

Without C.R. Smith, American Airlines as we know it today would not exist. I know I speak for all of my colleagues when I say we are grateful for his service and for his example. It is an honor to walk in his footsteps.

Signature of Gerard Arpey

Chairman & CEO
American Airlines

If you would like to learn more about C.R. Smith, American Airlines, or aviation in general, I encourage you to visit the C.R. Smith Museum, a very short drive from the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. Visit www.crsmithmuseum.org for details.