As chief information officer for the nation’s largest airline, Maya Leibman might be described as the air traffic controller of American Airlines Inc.’s technological transformation. Though she doesn’t sit in a tower or direct pilots in the sky, Leibman plays a vital role in making sure the company reaches its final destination. She’s charged with overseeing some of the airline’s critical operations, aiding in growth plans, and driving technical initiatives, all while mitigating any technological collisions that could bring all systems to a screeching halt.
“There are just very few areas of the business that are so impactful on the mission of American Airlines compared to technology,” Leibman says. “There’s really nothing that happens at the airline on a daily basis that doesn’t include technology.”
Leibman, a witty, 50-year-old world traveler who has visited about 80 countries, has worked for Fort Worth-based American for 22 years, serving as CIO since 2012. In addition to leading the day-to-day technical operations of American, Leibman has been charged with overseeing the technology integration of the 2015 mega-merger with US Airways—a task she’s continuing to manage as the united system rolls out in phases. She’s also leading the testing of new technology expected to improve the traveler experience—with features like baggage tracking and real-time flight information—and preparing for the addition of hundreds of more technical employees the company began hiring this summer. She already supervises the thousands of contractors, employees, and third-party providers that make up the company’s technical staff.
“Every initiative we want to take on requires a huge amount of IT, and it’s becoming even more that way because our customers want even more information at their fingertips,” says Doug Parker, American Airlines CEO. “The challenge we’re going to have is seeing how they’re going to meet all the demand.”
Given American’s current accomplishments and upcoming challenges, D CEO selected Leibman as CIO/CTO of the Year for the inaugural CIO/CTO Awards. (See the full list of winners and finalists here.)
Leibman’s job as CIO has become especially critical in an industry that has struggled in recent months with technical difficulties that have delayed or canceled thousands of flights. Southwest Airlines experienced a glitch that grounded more than 2,000 flights in July. The interruption was expected to cost the company as much as $82 million, according to reported estimates. Just a few weeks later, Delta canceled thousands of flights after its systems went down.
American had its own snafu late last year—a month after launching its integrated system for customers—when flights in Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, and Miami were grounded for an hour and a half. The issue caused nearly 300 delays. The airline blamed the glitch on “connectivity issues,” but didn’t provide additional details.
Though the possibility of experiencing another such heart-stopping moment is what keeps Leibman awake at night, she says she finds comfort in the strength of her team and the plans they have in place. “It’s like DEFCON 5—everyone rallies,” she says about unexpected technical issues. “You practice for something like this … and everyone knows what role they play.”
Her role is very clear: Lead the team down the runway, then get out of the way as the enterprise takes off.
The Rise of the CIO
While Leibman is helping lead American’s tech evolution, she’s also occupying a role that is undergoing its own transformation. In companies across all industries, the chief information officer on average is now the highest paid technical position. In 2016, chief information officers were estimated to have been paid an average of $172,000 and $268,250, nearly a 5 percent increase over 2015, according to data from consulting firm Robert Half International. Their salaries outrank the average pay of chief technology officers and chief security officers. For airlines, the CIO has become even more central to operations.
“If you go back to more than a decade or two ago, a lot of CIOs used to report to the CFO because most of the use of computers was essentially in bookkeeping,” says Amit Basu, chair of the Information Technology and Operations Management department at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. Today, Basu adds, CIOs are charged with ensuring processes and systems are functioning: “The CIO role becomes now a very critical role. It gets much closer to the chief operations officer.”
Leibman’s job as CIO has become especially critical in an industry that has struggled in recent months with technical difficulties that have delayed or canceled thousands of flights.
In the airline industry, technology runs everything, from booking, flight schedules, and departures to landings, maintenance, baggage claim, and internal systems. Not only is the airline relying on technology to run its processes; it’s also depending on it for compliance, security, and, most importantly, the safety of its passengers.
“The whole [goal of], ‘Let’s make sure everything works,’ is old now,” Suku Nair, chair of SMU’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, says about the job. “It’s now about what’s out there, bringing in new technology for the bottom line, and safety. So it’s always a moving target.”
Perhaps that’s why American Airlines chose to hire a professional who wasn’t “just” a technologist. In fact, Leibman, a native of Indianapolis, initially wasn’t groomed to be a tech executive. Instead, she was schooled in business and strategy, earning her MBA in 1994 from the University of California at Berkeley.
American was her first stop out of graduate school. She served as an analyst in the revenue management department, where she held multiple roles until 2000. From there she moved into interactive marketing, which led to more technical roles in information technology. She worked in that department for nine years before overseeing the AAdvantage Loyalty program as president in 2010. Two years later, she was named CIO.
“When Maya is in the room, we don’t expect her to just opine on tech issues,” says Parker, the CEO, who interacts with Leibman daily. “She’s another voice at the table, and she’s an intelligent and strategic one. She adds a lot of value because of her expertise in a lot of areas.”
Leibman will be the first to tell you she’s no technology guru. She does, however, know how to leverage its power. “Companies are not looking so much for their CIO to be a hardcore tech programmer,” she says, “but someone who … recognizes and appreciates the value technology can bring to the business. And that’s what I was able to provide.”
Spreading Her Wings
Leibman’s biggest accomplishment thus far has been completing the integration of American Airlines’ and US Airways’ customer-facing, or front-end, systems. She led thousands of employees to merge no fewer than 1,400 systems, many of which had performed the identical function for their respective brand. Planning for the first phase began two years before integration began. When it was completed on Oct. 17 of last year, more than 50,000 employees had completed 1 million hours of training on the new reservation software, more than 1,700 new kiosks had been installed, more than 30 regional test flights had been completed, and staffing at airports had jumped by more than 20 percent, with 350 additional IT technicians on location.
“One of the reasons it was so successful was the amazing team,” Leibman says. “That helps when you have a lot of stakeholders pulling and everyone is achieving something.”
Leibman was strategic in her approach, separating the loyalty program from the initial integration to reduce system stress on the day the front-end systems merged. She and her team also walked through every conceivable complication, down to carry-on pets that traveled the day before and the day after the merge.
The detailed engineering that goes into a merger like this is beyond complicated, experts say. “Even when a merger has not happened, you’re talking about so many layers of software,” says Nair of SMU, adding that airlines often piecemeal software together as they go. “So when you merge, there is no standard technology. So, now it’s compounded problems. Instead of 10 layers, there’s 20.”
With a team of experts under her wing, however, Leibman did more than just get the job done. Displaying her dry sense of humor, she helped leaders from two different companies begin their journey together—a feat Parker admits he wishes he could have accomplished.
“She was so good and did such a good job of disarming the room, making it so light-hearted, and relieving some of the tension,” says Parker, who was joining American from US Airways at the time. “What she was doing was letting the American team know she was OK, so they were OK. That just helped us tremendously.”
Liebman’s ability to warm up a room was no fluke. The wife and mother of a 9-year-old boy regularly inserts Dr. Seuss passages into her presentations. She even has a big, stuffed, yellow Sneetch, Dr. Seuss’ odd, bird-like creature that lives on the beach, sitting on a shelf in her office.
“When you’re working on these major projects, a lot of people are together, working for a lot of time in very stressful situations,” said Beverly Goulet, American’s chief integration officer. “So [Liebman’s] way to inject humor in various situations is a way to keep things on track. She’s very efficient.”
Ready for Takeoff
Leibman will likely have a lot of stressful situations to handle in the near future. She’s knee-deep in integrating the back-end systems, or those used internally, of US Airways and American Airlines now that the front end is complete. This is the last 30 percent of the technical integration efforts that will span across the next several years, she says. She’ll also be charged with grooming a new and much larger technical workforce currently being hired to boost American’s website and mobile capabilities—pent-up demand for an airline that has been through Chapter 11 bankruptcy and a major merger in the last five years.
“There just hasn’t been as much investment in IT as we would like,” Parker says, adding that it’s changing now. “So much of what lies ahead of American depends on her organization’s ability to get projects in place.”
Leibman’s team will only continue to benefit as the airline grows its bottom line. American is coming off a record-breaking year for profit. In 2015, the company recorded $7.6 billion in profit, up from $2.9 billion the year before. As a result, the company has more wiggle room to invest.
Leibman’s overall goal is to improve the customer experience and, according to the latest data, she has her work cut out for her. American Airlines ranked 10th out of 13 airlines analyzed by the Airline Quality Rating Report, a project led by educators at Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The ranking was based on 2015 data that included metrics such as on-time arrivals, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled baggage, and customer complaints.
As an experienced globe-trotter with a curious and adventurous nature, Liebman views her challenges at American as she does one of her travel excursions: ripe with new mountains to climb, hidden treasures to find, and new experiences to conquer. “Anything that’s a challenge is really exciting to take on,” she says.