Who Is Richard H. Anderson?

Richard H. Anderson is an American businessman who has made a career out of helping companies in the transportation sector. His past career highlights include the CEO positions at Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines. In 2013 he was awarded the Tony Jannus Award for distinguished service in the commercial airline industry, and in 2015 was named Aviation Week’s “Person of the Year.” During his tenure as the CEO of Delta Air Lines, Anderson was the prime mover behind the Delta-Northwest merger, and therefore responsible for creating the world’s largest airline.

He has also served as chair of the Airlines for America board of directors, as well as the International Air Transport Association board of governors. Anderson was most recently CEO of Amtrak, stepping down at the end of 2020.

Key Takeaways

  • Richard H. Anderson is an American business executive, known best for leading transportation companies.
  • Anderson has been a top executive at Northwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Amtrak.
  • He began his career as a lawyer for Continental Airlines in 1987.

Early Life of Richard H. Anderson

Anderson was born in 1955 in Galveston, Texas. His father worked as an office worker for the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Both his parents died of cancer when he was 19, leaving him to take care of his two younger sisters. 

He took jobs as a ditch digger and plumber's assistant to support them and began pursuing an undergraduate degree at Texas Tech and the University of Houston, from which he graduated in 1977 with a degree in political science. In 1982, he graduated from South Texas College of Law with a Juris Doctorate degree and took a job in the prosecutor’s office in Harris County, Texas.

Rise of Richard H. Anderson

Anderson had no aims toward a corporate career, but in 1987 he applied for an open position at Continental Airlines in their legal department. Anderson was hired and served as the company’s legal representative for a crash that took place, putting Anderson in the industry spotlight.

In 1990, Anderson took a job with Northwest Airlines as the deputy general counsel, specializing in labor issues and government regulations, a position that provided him a deep knowledge of the workings of the company and the airline industry in general.

By 2001, he worked his way up the corporate ladder to the company’s CEO position. It was a critical time for the airline and the industry as a whole. Anderson immediately had to contend with a recessionary economy, declining revenue, expensive labor contracts, and the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

A Shift to Healthcare

In 2004, Anderson left Northwest Airlines and the airline industry entirely to accept a job at UnitedHealth Group (UNH) as executive vice president. In 2005, he took over the role of CEO of UnitedHealth's data subsidiary, Ingenix, and also was president of the company's New Commercial Services Group. By 2007, it looked as if Anderson might be in line to take over the role of CEO. However, in another surprise move, Anderson left his $4.3 million a year job at UnitedHealth Group to return to the airline industry.

CEO of Delta Air Lines

In April 2007, Anderson joined the board of directors for Delta Air Lines, a time when the company was just emerging from bankruptcy. By August 2007, he was tapped for Delta's CEO job. With his experience with both Northwest and Delta, he was able to successfully bring them both together to form the world’s largest airline in 2008 in a merger valued at $2.6 billion. It remains the top airline by revenue as of 2020.

Anderson's Tenure at Amtrak

While Anderson retired as Delta's CEO in 2016, he didn't stay retired for long. In 2017, he became the President and CEO of Amtrak in a three-year contract that provided Anderson with a "token sum" salary.

One of his biggest challenges was to oversee Amtrak's major rebuilding program slated to repair New York City's Pennsylvania Station. Under Anderson's leadership, the financially beleaguered railway made strides toward achieving operational break-even and invested billions in new high-speed trains. On April 15, 2020, Anderson stepped down as CEO and president of Amtrak, replaced by Atlas Air executive William J. Flynn.