Why is American Not Trying Harder to Calm Safety Fears?

American, Operations

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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29 comments on “Why is American Not Trying Harder to Calm Safety Fears?

    1. Richard – I missed that. Thanks for pointing it out. Of course, it hasn’t been updated in days and is just a generic statement saying work should be done by Saturday. (That would be two days ago.) But I have updated the post.

  1. I just don’t buy the excuses that soda/coffee is causing the seat problem. People have been drinking those items for decades. I definitely think it is a labor issue.

    I’m guessing AA has so many fires to fight they can’t give enough attention to each one. I really don’t think they have realistic solution to their issues.

    I think there are a lot of frustrated employees, managers and customers at this point. The employees really have little bargaining power since they can’t simply quit and find another job easily in the industry, especially the pilots.

    Just a horribly, poorly managed industry with tons of problems and few solutions.

  2. All of AA’s problems led me to dig around, very superficially I admit, but it appears that their issues with communication and aircraft “safety” goes back a lot farther than just the last year or two. When DL and UA were going through bankruptcy I don’t recall the same level of issues and when there were issues I recall getting notice from DL. I also seem to recall that DL did a much better job of communication when the FAA went nuts and grounded AA and DL MD-80/88s because wires weren’t spaced exactly right.

    I wonder if this isn’t just a deeper corporate problem that needs to be ferreted out. Perhaps leadership at AA needs to clean house in the PR department.

  3. I used the ‘S’ word in your Saturday blog. The public was already thinking the pilots are sabotaging things when the media blasted all the delays due pilots writing up everything single item as a major item to fix.

    Same for the seats on only one type aircraft that is not new to the market, and all at once. Flash, sabotage by workers.

    AA can’t really come out and say their workers are sabotaging the airline, so they have to just let it go and come up with another reason. Either because that is what they must do, or they can’t say the FBI is looking into real sabotage issues with workers.

    AA may feel today’s special press event will be something to make the public happy by bringing on another alliance partner or the whole event is to show the public via the press that AA is not worried and it’s business as usual.

  4. The cybersphere believes that Horton will be Peter Principled into a more hands-on leadership role at Oneworld after his time at AMR ends. If true, conspiracy theory would explain why is focus is the alliance rather than the airline. (I am not one of one those people, just sayin’)

    Questioning an airline’s safety, issues real or imagined, can be a steak in the heart. Many attribute the Lockerbie tragedy as the last straw for PanAm. Concern over Eastern’s operations after the IAM lockout (and subsequent FAA investigations) contributed to its demise. Several large regionals failed because of safety related concerns. That was an era when newspaper headlines and lead stories on the network news mattered.

    Perhaps the PR folks at AMR are hoping that by ignoring the elephant in the living room…it will go away. In a digital media age and 24/7 new cycle they may be right. Remember how just 8 weeks ago the media buzz was new United is an operational mess?? We do, (that is why we love Cranky), but Average Consumer does not. This mess is one future crisis away from falling off the radar screen.

  5. It suggests to me that the USAirways thing is further along than people suggest admit (or even know). No reason to spend time and money on “fixing” the American brand when it’s going away soon anyway.

      1. Nope and nope. Doug Parker has already said that in the event of a merger, the company would be called American Airlines and would be headquartered in Dallas.

        By what measure is the US Airways brand worse than American? Better on time performance, better MBR, comparable level of DOT complaints…

  6. I remain an AA loyalist, 100% but sadly agree that leadership in AA over the board is of a level more in line with a lemonade stand CEO rather than what should be for the once number one air carrier in the US. There is an unfortunate ostrich syndrome that appears to permeate all sectors of AA Corporate.

  7. My guess is that the airlines spend a pretty big chunk of money for PR, and customer relations. Yet, many of us wonder whether or not that money is being spent wisely. It really isn’t the amount, it’s where, when, and how it’s spent.

    As someone who likes to complain, actually, someone who likes to point out things that could and should be looked at, changed, and done better, when I write to UA, for example, it seems I typically get a resonse that does everything but “relate” to me. The response is from a person identified as “UA Customer Care,” sent by something called “Customer Solutions,” and the issue is something really, really big, a word from a Senior VP, “Customer Experience.”

    I know, “Your business is very important to us,” but try to “relate” to me directly, with something as simple as an answer from “Customer Relations.” Relate by “showing” me you care. For example, any UA pilot, flying a UA plane with Channel 9 available, yet who doesn’t turn it on without me having to ask, doesn’t care about me. Any flight attendant, or ground rep, who doesn’t find a blanket for me sitting in a UA 752, seat 8F, (right there where the cold air is leaking through the emergency door seals), doesn’t care. When UA operates a “change-of-gauge” flight, where a passenger has to change planes, and calls it a direct flight, yet it really is “connecting” service, it is not showing it cares and is being honest with me.

    True, some pilots seem to get it; others don’t. Some flight attendants and ground reps get it, others don’t. Airlines like Southwest seem to get; UA often doesn’t. And, from what I’ve seen, as you write, AA doesn’t either.

  8. OK CF you were right about Qater and One World..
    I still stick by my sources saying AA & US Air
    are very close to a merger deal…. lawyers have been
    back and forth past 14 days… in secret closed door session.

    1. I wouldn’t be completely shocked if we heard about a merger announcement in the coming weeks. I just didn’t see any way this announcement today would involve US Airways.

      By the way, all the meetings are going to be secret closed door sessions. They are probably reviewing the books as made possible by the NDA.

  9. AA isn’t the first airline to take a deer-in-the-headlights approach to crisis management Brett. There are hundreds of other examples over the past decade alone. UA hit in the sand when they busted a guy’s guitar.

    Other than maybe Southwest, or Delta or Jetblue, most airlines simply don’t comprehend the customer thing. Tunnel vision about costs can do that to any company.

    My guess is that AA’s management is in a bit of brain overload right now with so many plates spinning at the same time.

    But the sabotage comment? I’d have a tough time believing any AA employee would try that.

    1. Rob – You have trouble thinking an AA employee would sabotage an airplane but does the average traveler? I remember mentioning this when they found some shop towels in a United engine a couple years ago. There has been sabotage elsewhere in the world. (I recall an incident with Alitalia awhile back.) And if you’re a regular traveler, you might think it’s possible.

      American wasn’t exactly helping things when it clearly stated that its own employees were the last ones to touch the seats (which now seems to not be true since Timco did the work). Why would AA point that out unless it was to try to place blame on someone?

  10. Seeing it like a passenger might from a disgruntled bunch of employees I think you’re right Brett.

    Heck if AA management doesn’t — and top of it I just wrote something about that at Jetwhine this morning — I guess we can all forget that everyone doesn’t get aviation.

    I think this is where I’m supposed to say “Duh.”

  11. I can think of two possible explanations:

    1. AA feels that saying anything about safety will backfire. People might think “why are these guys trying to reassure us about safety so much? Obviously something must be wrong and they are trying to cover it up.”

    2. AA and US are about to merge, and US would rather announce that everything is fine after their management takes over and not before. That way, they can portray themselves as the savior.

  12. Cranky,
    Anyone who buys American’s explanation for why the seats came loose is also buying a bridge in Brooklyn.


    As for getting releases from the company, I write about aviation for The New York Times as a freelancer and despite making several requests I cannot get updates from the airline. Perhaps the PR department is staging a job action. Deafening silence? Indeed.

  13. This whole thing has been a PR disaster for American. Saying nothing about the issues that they have been having as made things worse for them.

  14. A) I think AA management has been tone deaf for years, and this most recent group is no different. B) I wonder if they’ve become almost numb to the safety concerns after the multiple FAA fines for mostly minor infractions. I don’t think anyone believes the union PR on the issues for a second, particularly the pilots, because everyone knows as soon as they are appeased all of their myriad safety concerns will disappear as if they never happened.

  15. For those that ascribe to the ‘safety pyramid’ view of risk management, this will be quite alarming.

    This theory (been around since the 1930s) says that for every incident discovered, there are many many ‘near misses’ that do not come to light (with the ratio of discovered incidents to near misses depending on the specific industry).

    Assurances by the spin doctors is the last thing that would assure me.

    This level of fault should have the regulators all over American…on the basis of established safety principles of over eighty years standing.

    Spin doctors and media commentators have no means whatever to assess the safety of an airline. That sort of comment can only come from qualified people with access to maintenance records. Anyone else knows nothing, and should refrain from judgmental comment (either way) unless they want some litigation coming their way.

  16. Releasing a statement about safety always has to be treated with caution. Can you imagine the uproar if it backfires? Anyway, as a frequent flyer myself I am happy to continue using AA, and hoping for discounted prices should customer numbers drop…..even if I know deep down that this is rather optimistic.

  17. Really Addison?

    What would it have cost AA to release an e-mail to all its customers saying something like “We realize how upsetting the safety implications of our 757 seat issues might appear to our valued customers, but rest assured we’re doing all we can to fix the problem now and make sure we maintain the high safety standards we’ve been known for.”

    The point I think Brett was making here is that AA didn’t even try.

    Perhaps the legacy carriers need to take a few PR lessons from another airline that tends to deal with unpleasant news head on. We could call it the “WWSWD” checklist … that being What Would Southwest Do?”

    Just my two cents.

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