First was a scathingly hilarious op-ed in the New York Times, A Trans-Atlantic Trip Turns Kafkaesque, which began:
You, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic. You do not have the know-how. You do not have the equipment. And your employees have clearly lost interest in the endeavor.… You need to stop.
Then today the airline admitted that a row of seats had become unbolted from the floor and tipped over in mid-flight – on three different planes in the past week (!).
According to the Associated Press, an American spokesperson…
said an initial review indicated that there could be a problem with the way the seats fit into tracks on the floor of the Boeing 757, but technical teams from the airline “are looking at everything.” Asked if seats had ever come loose on an American flight before last week, (she) replied, “Not that I’m aware of.”
“American Airlines’ reputation is in free fall,” writes Daniel Gross in Newsweek today.
Ok, it’s easy to pile on (and we certainly will hear more on this seat business from the likes of Jay Leno and David Letterman, prolonging AA’s agony). But let’s focus on what the company should do.
- Ground any suspect planes immediately. American Airlines has now taken this obvious first step, grounding eight Boeing 757s. But they need to make sure no other planes in their fleet fall victim to this strange malady—every seat row in every plane should get an immediate inspection. Thoroughness is essential to begin winning back the trust of the public after such an embarrassing series of events.
- Get the facts straight, then correct erroneous reporting. Spokespeople need to thoroughly understand American Airline’s safety record. “Not that I’m aware of” is not a good answer to a question that was sure to be asked. Remember that in the absence of solid information, others will feel free to speculate, and discrepancies over even the most basic information will appear all over the media. For example, some media outlets (including CNN) continue to report that there have been two AA planes with unfastened seats; other outlets insist that there have been three. Which is it? Why isn’t American Airlines clearing up the confusion? It just contributes to the whole Keystone Cops aura that the airline is exuding these days.
- Don’t blame your employees, but don’t be too quick to rule out potential causes. The AP story states:
(The AA spokesperson) was adamant, however, in saying that the incidents were not the result of sabotage by workers. American’s union employees are unhappy about pending layoffs and cuts in pay and benefits that American has imposed since filing for bankruptcy protection in November.
Her instincts are right in not putting the blame on employees, but how can the airline so definitively rule out any potential causes until they understand what is to blame? A better answer might have been: “We have no reason to think any incidents were intentional. We will continue to investigate this matter until we understand what caused them. The safety of our passengers is our highest priority.”
UPDATE: American Airlines is now saying it has determined the cause of the problem, improperly installed clamps.
- Understand that your reputation has been seriously harmed with far-reaching consequences. American Airlines’ position in each of its negotiations (with the pilots, with US Air, with the flying public) has been weakened. Public confidence has been eroded. To pretend otherwise will only prolong and deepen the airline’s crisis.
American Airlines should take a lesson from Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League. Embroiled in a lengthy dispute with its referees, the NFL brought in less-qualified replacement refs which naturally led to suspect officiating and ultimately a devalued product to the fans. Still, Goodell and the league’s owners would not accede to the ref’s demands, though miniscule against the scale of the multi-billion-dollar NFL.
But all that changed last Monday night, when replacement refs blew a crucial call on the last play of a nationally televised game. What became widely known as the “worst call ever” tipped the balance of the referee dispute. The NFL clearly had no remaining fan support for continuing the lockout and the the very credibility of the league was being questioned. The owners wisely folded their hand two days later. On Friday, Goodell issued an apology of sorts to NFL fans, though he avoided using the words “apologize” or “sorry,” and it smacked a bit of arrogance.
So AA, here’s a plan to win back trust in your airline:
- Put the seat debacle behind you by inspecting and fixing every plane that could possibly be affected.
- Commit to clear and informed statements from your spokespeople, and quick action to correct misinformation.
- Settle your dispute with your most valuable employees. Do you really expect people to fly on your airline when your pilots are on strike?
- Make a real, sincere effort to satisfy your customers with a safe, reliable and yes, enjoyable experience. It could begin with the CEO sending an electronic copy of that nasty NYT op-ed to every employee in the airline with a note saying he’s embarrassed by the way American Airlines has at times recently lost its way, and asking everyone in the company to commit to doing better. Think of that op-ed as the moral equivalent of a “before” picture someone dedicated to losing weight hangs up on the refrigerator for motivation.
Do those four things and number 5 will be imminently achievable:
Get your fiscal house in order to deliver consistent, sustainable profits.