'An absolute gift': Southwest flight attendant, American Airlines CEO have emotional racism talk at 30,000 feet

Southwest Airlines flight attendant JacqueRae Hill was fed up and feeling defeated by the racial unrest gripping the country before her shift began on Friday. 

a person standing posing for the camera: American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and Southwest Airlines flight attendant JacqueRae Hill

© JacqueRae Hill, Special to USA TODAY
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and Southwest Airlines flight attendant JacqueRae Hill

The 38-year-old Dallas woman, who is African American, ended the day in high spirits thanks to a 10-minute conversation sparked by a book in the seatback pocket of a passenger in row 25 on a flight to Florida.

“It changed how I was thinking and what I was thinking,” Hill said in an interview with USA TODAY. “It’s just been such a blessing to me.”

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The passenger: Doug Parker, the white CEO of Southwest rival American Airlines.

Parker, who was flying Southwest because his airline’s flight to Panama City was booked, was equally moved, recalling the encounter as “an absolute gift to me” in an email to other American executives on Saturday. 

The exchange came amid growing tensions and nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis a week ago. 

It all began with a book about racism

Parker packed the best-selling book on racism, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo, in his backpack for the flight to Florida.

A board member had recommended it to other American executives, but Parker was only halfway through it before the coronavirus crushed the airline business in late February.

“The horrific and senseless death of George Floyd reminded me there were bigger issues in our world than coronavirus, so I packed the book for the trip,” Parker said in the email.

Hill, who said she gets her best book recommendations from passengers, saw Parker board with the popular book.

She didn’t know who he was at the time, just that he was “somebody that doesn’t look like me reading a book about how to have a conversation on race.”

About 30 minutes before landing, Hill plopped down in the empty aisle seat in Parker’s row to ask him about the book.

“My ego again assumes she has recognized me, mask and all, and wants to know why I’m flying Southwest,” Parker said.

“But, no, she has no idea who I am. She is a young, black woman and she points at the book lodged in my seat pocket and asks, ‘How do you like that book?’ I say it’s fantastic and defensively show her how I’m a bit past midway. She says, ‘It’s on my list to read and I saw you bring it onboard and I just wanted to talk to you. …’ And then she started to cry.”

Hill, who has worked for Southwest for 14 years, said she didn’t plan on the “emotional outburst,” but the tears just came as they talked about the book.

She said Parker was initially startled by her reaction but quickly consoled her.

“He was just like, ‘I’m so sorry, and it’s all our fault. We have to have these conversations (about race),'” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m so sorry. But thank you. Oh my God, thank you.”’

Parker’s take: “I felt wholly inadequate, but I knew it was a special moment. The best I could do was tell her that the book talks about how white people are horrible at talking about racism and that what we need are real conversations. She agreed. I told her I was trying to learn and through tears and a mask, she said, ‘So am I.'”

At the end of the conversation, Parker asked for her name and introduced himself as the CEO of American. She told him her mother works for American, as a customer service manager at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.

Parker scribbled a thank you note to Hill on the back of the Southwest boarding pass he printed out at home.

“Thank you so much for coming back to speak with me,” it says. “It was a gift from God and an inspiration to me.”

He gave Hill his email address “if you’d like to continue the conversation.”

a close up of text on a whiteboard: American Airlines' CEO Doug Parker's note to Southwest Airlines flight attendant JacqueRae Hill.

A giddy Hill immediately told her mother about the exchange, and her mother emailed Parker before the flight landed.

He responded right away, Hill said.

“Your daughter’s visit was a gift to me,” the email said. “She is a special young woman. She had the courage to approach me only because I was reading a book on racism in America. She, like most all of us, is questioning how we got to this spot and why we can’t be better. Her kind heart and open-mindedness were evident — you raised her well.” 

He also joked, “How did we let her go to Southwest?”  

Hill shared the story on her Facebook page on Saturday and cannot believe the response. She has had hours-long conversations with strangers on Facebook about race.

“Conversation does change the narrative,” she said.


In his email to American executives, Parker used the story to stress the importance of listening.

“These are trying times. Our people are hurting. I’m not certain what all of the answers are, but I know it involves talking to each other. And listening. And it takes courage and leadership to start the conversation and to stand up for what is right. JacqueRae taught me all that.”

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