chance encounter

‘Talk to Each Other': Unlikely Friendship Is Lesson on Race Relations

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker recently attended flight attendant's wedding

NBCUniversal, Inc.

An unlikely friendship between an airline’s top executive and a rival carrier’s flight attendant is proof of the power of a simple conversation – and serves as a lesson on race relations for the entire country.

It started during last summer's protests in the days after George Floyd was murdered and the country was erupting.

Southwest Airlines flight attendant JacqueRae Sullivan, who is Black, was working a trip from Dallas to Florida, but her mind was somewhere else.

"I just had a lot of emotions going on,” she said.

She noticed a white passenger reading a book titled "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism."

"He came on the plane with that book and that's all I needed,” Sullivan said.

She struck up a conversation with the passenger she had just met.

"And I was like, 'So how was the book?'" she said.

"What it's about is how we as a white race aren't very good about talking about race,” the passenger said. “So I said, 'I'm just trying to learn.' And she looked at me and said, 'So am I,' and she started to cry."

Sullivan unloaded.

"I felt like I was dumping everything on him. And the way he graciously was like, 'It's OK,'” she said. “It was a lot of emotions that came from me."

She had no idea at first that the passenger was American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, who had hopped on her Southwest flight because his own airline's planes were fully booked and there were limited planes flying because of the pandemic.

"That just opened the door to so much in such a short amount of time. I'm forever grateful for that interaction,” Sullivan said.

On his way off the plane, Parker scribbled a note on the back of his ticket and invited her to contact him to continue their conversation.

A note American Airlines CEO Doug Parker wrote to Southwest Airlines flight attendant JacqueRae Sullivan after their conversation on race during a chance meeting on a flight.
JacqueRae Sullivan
A note American Airlines CEO Doug Parker wrote to Southwest Airlines flight attendant JacqueRae Sullivan after their conversation on race during a chance meeting on a flight.

She did, and they quickly became friends.

Sullivan, whose mother happens to work at American Airlines, posted the note on social media and it went viral.

The two continued their friendship; Sullivan and Parker’s wife became close too.

Recently, Sullivan got married and Parker was there at her wedding.

"I went because I wanted to go,” Parker said. “It was an honor."

JacqueRae Sullivan

Parker said the lesson from their experience is clear.

"Talk to each other,” he said. “Have the courage to start conversations."

A year after the two met, Sullivan agreed the future of race relations looks better.

"It didn't happen overnight. It's not going to change overnight,” she said. “But if we commit ourselves to just listening to one another, it will get better. It has to."

Parker and Sullivan both said they planned to continue their relationship.

"I'm certain we are going to be friends for a lifetime now,” Parker said. “We just need to talk so much more.”

Contact Us