Why is American Not Trying Harder to Calm Safety Fears?

American has had a string of bad news lately that just doesn’t seem to end. When things started getting ugly in mid-September, much of the bad press focused on flights being delayed and canceled. That’s a reliability issue that may have made people think twice about flying the airline, but we’ve seen most of the coverage shift toward something far worse: safety.

While people might not want to fly American for its lack of reliability, it’s much more of a crisis if people don’t think the airline is safe to fly regardless of whether flights are on time or not. While I personally don’t have huge concerns about flying the airline, I’m not the general public. If I worked at American in PR, this would have me at DEFCON 1, yet the airline has treated this as if it’s just a minor issue.

American Airlines Captain Oblivious and his Boy Blunder

The most visible of the safety issues has been the seats coming loose on 757s. This is a major issue in that it could easily be believed by the general public to be sabotage or the sign of an airline failing to do proper maintenance. Neither is remotely acceptable. It sounds like American has found a possible reason for the issue and in yet another stupid move is blaming passengers. While this issue has now apparently been fixed, real damage has been done. And now the media is piling on, making things worse.

As always happens, when an airline is on the ropes, every single diversion or minor issue becomes newsworthy. Saturday morning, for example, there was a problem with the flaps on an airplane and the flight opted to land at LAX instead of Orange County because of the longer runway. Seems smart and hardly life-threatening, but what is the headline in the Los Angeles Times? American Airlines flight makes emergency landing at LAX.

This type of relentless reporting is bound to shake travelers and make them reconsider flying American if they have a choice. After all, it doesn’t matter if there’s a safety issue or not. It matters if people think there is. And American is losing control of the story.

If you’re a traveler, where are you hearing about what’s going on? Pretty much everywhere but from American itself.

The Deafening Silence
On American’s press release page, the most recent releases talk about a new exhibit at the airline’s museum, a bonus mile offer, and some charity promotion. There is nothing about seats or reported safety issues. And while there is a homepage link about canceled and delayed flights, it says nothing about the safety concerns in order to help reassure people. [Update: There is a link to a brief, generic statement that hasn’t been updated in several days under “News and Offers” On the homepage that I missed.]

Check out American’s Facebook feed and there isn’t a mention of it at all. The most recent post is about a new 777-300 flight simulator. Let me give you a sampling of the comments.

Now if you can just get the guys trained who screw down the seats….

Does it come with attached seats?

are the seats bolted down in this model or is it real and the bolts are optional?

It goes on and on from there with no response.

American outsources a huge chunk of its PR to a company called Weber Shandwick. I usually get news forwarded on to me from people there, but I haven’t received anything about this issue. It appears that there have been media statements primarily from the airline’s Director of Communications Andrea Huguely but either the distribution list is very narrow or you have to specifically ask for the information to get it.

To make things even worse, the airline’s unions have been out there quite vocally talking about it from a “it’s not my fault perspective.” The mechanics union “blasts” American for outsourcing seat work. That’s undoubtedly a proactive move to prevent people from suggesting that American’s mechanics sabotaged the airplane.

And the union that’s been in the news most lately, the pilots union, has been actively responding to anything that could be blamed on them with a focus on safety. Releases talk about how the pilots “continue to report serious maintenance issues.” Again, this is a defensive move by the pilots but what matters is that they once again call safety into question at American Airlines and American is not aggressively responding.

Leadership? Anyone?
With so much adding up, why isn’t American going out there with a full court press? Why isn’t CEO Tom Horton out assuring people that everything is ok? Is he too busy preparing for today’s big oneworld announcement? That seems insane. There are more important things to do than sit in the Four Seasons in New York and celebrate your alliance’s growth while your airline crumbles. Can we at least get Jim Ream, SVP of Operations to say something? This needs a bigger response.

I just can’t figure out what could be more important than making sure people don’t think your airline is unsafe. I know that I personally wouldn’t hesitate to fly the airline for safety reasons. (In fact, my wife is flying them this week.) But American needs to work harder to get the general public to feel the same way. If they can’t be bothered, then it seems like yet another reason to bring in a new management team.

If you want to stay up to date on American news, my suggestion is to follow the Airline Biz Blog and Sky Talk.

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