Cyrus Rowlett Smith

Cyrus Rowlett Smith (September 9, 1899 – April 4, 1990), known throughout his life as C. R. Smith or just C.R., was the CEO of American Airlines from 1934 to 1968 and from 1973 to 1974. He was also the wartime deputy commander of the Air Transport Command, and United States Secretary of Commerce for a brief period under President Lyndon B. Johnson. He is regarded as one of the titans of U.S. airline history.

Business career

Born in Minerva, Texas, Smith attended the University of Texas despite never having graduated from high school. Upon graduation, Smith worked as an accountant for the accounting firm of Peat Marwick Mitchell and later ran a number of businesses, including a Western apparel store and a firm that sold state records of new mothers to manufacturers of baby supplies. Smith's abilities were first recognized by Texas industrialist Alva Pearl Barrett, who in 1928 set up the airline Texas Air Transport (TAT), which became Southern Air Transport. Smith joined SAT as a vice president in 1929, and through a series of mergers SAT became part of American Airlines. American's owner, E. L. Cord, hired Smith to run the nationwide network based on his able management of Southern operation. In 1934, he became president of American Airlines.[1]

In business, he was known for an informal, no-nonsense leadership style that stressed close relationships with both executives and employees. Convair president Jack Naish noted that "you can close a $100 million deal on his word alone." He generally communicated through personally typed one-page memos. Smith was said to know every American employee by name until the end of his first term as CEO. He fostered a close relationship with Douglas Aircraft that led American to become a key adopter of the Douglas DC-3 and DC-6: he was also one of the early proponents of what is now LaGuardia Airport in New York City.

One of Smith's most famous acts was the publication of an advertisement entitled "Why Dodge This Question: Afraid To Fly?" in 1934. Airline safety had been a taboo subject at the time, and Smith was credited with being the first airline manager to discuss it openly with the public. [2]

With the outbreak of World War II, Smith left American to become a colonel in the United States Army Air Forces, eventually rising to the rank of major general in the Air Transport Command; he immediately left the AAF in 1945 and returned to his airline. Due to his informal but results-oriented management style, Smith won high praise during the War. Referring to Smith and ATC commander, General Harold George, General Henry Arnold, the chief of the Air Forces, wrote that "no matter what mission I gave them, I could count on its being carried out 100%".[2] It did not hurt that Smith was close friend with the first family, and Eleanor Roosevelt would habitually call on him for travel arrangements.

In 1946, Smith began to break Pan American's monopoly in international air travel through American Overseas Airlines, leading to American's expansion overseas. He also set up the Admirals Club, the first airline lounge system. In the 1950s, he helped American become the first domestic jet carrier in the US by selecting the Boeing 707 aircraft, which came out months before its rival Douglas DC-8.

He was instrumental in the mandatory retirement age provision for airline pilots or "Age Sixty Rule". He attempted to enforce a company policy of that at American Airlines in the 1950s, when younger pilots were getting out of the Air Force and Navy after Korea. He felt that the senior pilots were too highly paid, and replacing them with younger, lower paid ones, would be economically advantageous to the company. The older pilots working for American took him to court and won, but when Eisenhower appointed General Elwood R. Quesada as the first administrator of the FAA (the three knew each other from World War II), one of Quesada's first actions was to declare the age sixty retirement as regulatory. Opponents held that there was never any scientific study or even data to back up such an action, but it favored Smith's plan.

Smith left American in 1968. He returned in 1973 following a period of corporate mismanagement and scandal, although he retired again less than a year later, stating that he was "working in a 747 era with a DC-6 state of mind." In 1976, Smith was the recipient of the Tony Jannus Award for his distinguished contributions to commercial aviation.

Political career

Smith was exceptionally well-connected politically, beginning with a Fort Worth and Texas base. Smith was close friends with many prominent Texan politicians, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Jesse Jones and Sam Rayburn. He was also on very close terms with the Roosevelt family, especially Eleanor Roosevelt and her son Elliott Roosevelt. C.R. introduced Elliott to his second wife, served as best man, and persuaded him to move to Fort Worth. In 1933, seeing that Eleanor (who never would speak up for herself) was often inconvenienced on her travels, Smith decided to always fly along with her on American Airlines to ensure her comfort. His friendship with Lyndon Johnson was the principal reason for his accession to the Cabinet in 1968. However, he often clashed with the civil service because of his aversion to bureaucracy: on his first day, he objected to having four secretaries and asked that three of them be fired. This culture shock caused him to leave his post early and enter a first retirement.

C.R. Smith was briefly married (in Dallas in December 1934), but the bride gave up on "being married to an airline."

He died in Washington, D.C., and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


The American Airlines C. R. Smith Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, is named after him.

Mr. Smith was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1976.

See also


  • "Jets Across the U.S.," TIME, November 17, 1958.

External links

  • C. R. Smith Museum
Business positions
Preceded by
American Airways becomes American Airlines
American Airlines CEO
Succeeded by
George A. Spater
Preceded by
George A. Spater
American Airlines CEO
Succeeded by
Albert Vincent Casey
Political offices
Preceded by
Alexander Buel Trowbridge
U.S. Secretary of Commerce
Served under: Lyndon B. Johnson

March 6, 1968 – January 19, 1969
Succeeded by
Maurice Stans

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