American Airlines’ Reputation Crisis

American Airlines has received a lot of negative attention recently.

In January a snowstorm in Chicago caused the cancellation of numerous flights. This week the airline cancelled over 3,000 flights (more than 600 today alone) to conduct wiring checks on the planes, stranding more than a quarter of a million passengers.

aa_adTo add to the airline’s misery, its pilots union went on the offensive as the Allied Pilots’ Association took out a big ad in USA Today to attack the airline’s management. The ad links to a new site called Tell Your AA Story, which claims to be “produced by a group of concerned American Airlines employees.”

The site encourages passengers and employees alike to share their stories of dissatisfaction with the union and with American Airlines management, although it warns:

Note: your message will be sent to AA management, but we cannot guarantee that they will read, much less respond, to your concerns.

Double trouble. The airline is facing a major reputation crisis.

American Airlines’ Response

So what is American Airlines doing to address the situation?

Offline Response

According to PR Week, the company has mobilized its entire communications team (a whopping seven people) and prioritized “direct engagement with passengers on the ground.” In addition:

AA held multiple press conferences for reporters, one of which included a b-roll of an inspection of an American Airline plane, as well as photos demonstrating the wiring in question.

So far, so good. Helping reporters to understand what’s going on is a good idea.

[American Airlines’ VP of corporate communications Roger] Frizzell acknowledged, however, that the person waiting in the airport doesn’t care why the planes were grounded, just that his or her life was disrupted, so the company needed to address that in its communications.

Again, good. They understand that excuses won’t cut it. Another note in the story, though, made me raise my eyebrows.

Frizzell told PR Week that American “passed out press releases to consumers waiting in the airport to keep them informed.”

Wait, what? That’s your idea of direct engagement?

Ok, to be honest I’m not sure American could have come out on top in terms of the passengers at the airport. I’m not convinced that handing out press kits is the way to go though, especially when the releases don’t fit the messaging that your VP of communications is using:

These inspections were necessary to ensure compliance with a Federal Aviation Administration directive related to the bundling of wires in the wheel well of the MD-80 aircraft.

Online Response

The company’s website doesn’t put the best face on the situation, either.

There is a (understated) message at the top of the American Airlines homepage: “Aircraft Inspections Affect Some AA Travel.” The content of the next page, though, does very little to convey any sense of caring about its customers. Apart from a perfunctory message at the top, the rest of the page is very functional and to-the-point. “Sanitized” is the word I’d use. The page shows customers how to get a re-fund, how to re-book and how to get to the company’s press releases.

Say what you will about how JetBlue handled its crisis last year, it did provide a somewhat personal response through a video message by its CEO David Neeleman. It wasn’t the best response in terms of the execution or timing, but the right idea was there.

American Airlines, on the other hand, has done little in this area. It wasn’t until yesterday that CEO Gerard Arpey apologized for the debacle – three days after it started. Even then, as others have pointed out, he didn’t apologize for the inconvenience to customers, just for his failure to ensure safety standards are met. What’s more, his apology doesn’t appear anywhere on the American Airlines website.

Overall, their online reaction gets a failing grade from my perspective.

Conclusion

American Airlines is in a tough position. This isn’t a crisis that communications alone can solve. Also, to be fair, they’ve done several things right:

  • Focusing on the customers on the ground
  • Multiple press conferences
  • Educating reporters about the situation
  • Keeping people up-to-date with what’s happening.

However, there are a lot of things they could do better:

  • Find a more personal, less sanitized way of keeping people on the ground informed
  • Make sure everyone is singing the same tune
  • Make the website about the people, not just the process
  • Get out there sooner
  • Have the CEO apologize for what matters to customers
  • Put the CEO’s apology up on the website.

What do you think? How could American Airlines have communicated better in this crisis?

  • Note, the following was written from the comfort of my armchair:

    Dave,

    Good observations. I’m not sure if this is a snap inspection, but if it was expected, you’d assume that the company would already have a plan in place so that it could respond faster.

    It’s a difficult situation when emotion (anger over flight cancellations) is pitted against facts on the ground (wiring must be inspected).

    It looks like American Airlines will be in the situation of having to “make it up” to the customers by providing something after this is all over. The damage has been done. Can they staunch the bleeding? They must also provide some sort of guarantee that it will not happen again (only if it won’t). Lastly, what will their message be looking forward? Will they be able to claim “We have the most-inspected fleet in the sky: we’re safe!”?

    I go to a grocery store near my house that has been undergoing extensive renovations. All the staff have T-shirts that say “Sorry for the mess, but no pain, no gain.” In this case, AA can direct that message on themselves. They can atone, learn from and acknowledge their mistakes, and take this as an opportunity to reach out and maybe take a more personable approach from now on.

    From my mere Master’s paper, I’ve noticed much crisis response comes down to corporate culture. Is it a culture of CYA (Cover your ass) or one of accepting responsibility?

  • If American keeps this up, they’ll have to change their name to American’t.

    http://politicalgrafitti.blogspot.com/2008/04/americant-airlines.html