Gerard Arpey, the son of an airline employee, had worked for American Airlines for more than 29 years, ever since he graduated with his master’s from the University of Texas in 1982. At age 53, he was still young to be a chairman and chief executive officer of a major carrier.

We say all this to note his premature departure from the executive offices of American and parent AMR on Nov. 28, as the AMR board was preparing to take AMR and its subsidiaries into a New York federal bankruptcy court.

We can only imagine how wrenching his decision to leave must have been. But for years, he had decried his major competitors who had slid into bankruptcy rather than fix their financial problems outside Chapter 11.

In a goodbye letter Nov. 29 to employees, he said that although the AMR board had asked him to stay, “after careful consideration, I concluded that my remaining in those roles would not be best for the company. In my view, executing the Board’s plan will require not only a reevaluation of every aspect of our business, but also the leadership of a new Chairman and CEO who will bring restructuring experience and a different perspective to the process.”

That new leader is Tom Horton, who joined AMR in 1985 and was promoted to president of American and AMR in 2010. He’s been with the company continuously except for a four-year absence when he joined AT&T and helped engineer its merger with SBC Communications.

You can say that Horton comes from the same gene pool as Arpey and Arpey’s predecessors as chairman and CEO. Both were hired during the tenure of Bob Crandall, as was Don Carty (1998-2003), who ran the company between Crandall (1985-1998 as chairman and CEO) and Arpey, who became CEO in 2003.

It’ll take some time for outsiders to see how Horton plans to run the company differently from his close friend, Arpey. Within a week, Horton announced the retirement of an executive vice president and vice president and the departure of a senior vice president.

But Horton will have the rare, if unenviable task, of reshaping one of the nation’s oldest airlines much to his liking, through the bankruptcy process. In that regard, he’ll have flexibility that his predecessors never enjoyed.

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