American Airlines' Brand Image In Free Fall
News reports about American Airlines’ labor dispute with pilots, which has resulted a spotty on-time record and outright flight cancelations due to sickouts and an increase in maintenance reports, have certainly caught a lot of traveler’s attention in recent weeks. Then there was the jolting bankruptcy filing of parent company AMR Corp. nearly a year ago, an event that had wistful shareholders and road warriors alike reminiscing of the glory days under the autocratic but quality-obsessed Bob Crandall (see below). Throw in the ongoing merger or takeover rumors, and the attendant fear of higher ticket prices and fewer flying choices, and you have a lot of the ingredients for the crash-landing of a once high-flying brand.
When you toss in reports of loose seats, however –- not just one, but several incidents–- and it’s time for everyone to brace themselves for impact. The New York Post minced no judgment: “Airline Has A Screw Loose” the tabloid declared Tuesday in a story that revealed there had been at least three separate incidents of emergency landings of American domestic flights recently due to loose seats.
“Some have suspected sabotage” by angry workers, a WCBS Newsradio 88 story reported. That supposition turned out to be wrong. But aviation attorney Justin Green told CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider, according to the story, that “it’s a black eye for American, regardless of the cause.”
David L. Campbell, the airline's vp of safety, told the AP in an interview that “the clamps might have been installed incorrectly during maintenance work by American crews and Timco, an outside contractor,” based in North Carolina, according to a story running in the Winston-Salem Journal. New seats on some of American's 757s have a different fastening system, it turns out.
Newsradio 88, a New York station, had a reporter at the airport yesterday quizzing flyers about their reactions to the news. One seasoned American business-trip stalwart was not alone in indicating he was through with the airline. Another passenger was more forgiving, pointing out that we live in an imperfect world.
Just how many imperfections consumers will tolerate, however, is the question at hand. There’s even more to the debacle. “American Airlines Suffers Its Worst Week Ever,” reads the hed over a Daniel Gross piece in the Daily Beast. “And it’s only Tuesday,” he wrote when he filed a couple of days ago.
“American’s “travails started on Saturday with novelist Gary Shteyngart’s caustic op-ed in The New York Times detailing his harrowing 30-hour journey from Paris to New York,” Gross writes. “Shteyngart declared, on America’s most important op-ed page, that the airline ‘should no longer be flying across the Atlantic’ because American did not have the ‘know-how’ and that its employees ‘have clearly lost interest in the endeavor.’”
Those underlings, perhaps, yearn for the days when Crandall ruled with an iron fist, as this sharply satiric YouTube video suggests. Or check out some of the comments following Crandall’s appearance on a Charlie Rose broadcast in March.
“As one of those laborers who vilified Bob Crandall for years, I would have never thought I would agree with him on so many issues,” writes one retired pilot. “However, we have both grown older and perhaps a little wiser! :-)” He doesn’t agree that bankruptcy is the best way to control costs, however. “There are more humane ways to deal with that,” he writes.
And there might be better ways to ensure long-time job security than a sick-out that cripples operations, some would argue.
"People are already booking on other airlines.... It's starting to increase exponentially," Gene Grabowski, evp of Washington communications firm Levick told the Los Angeles Times’ Gregory Karp. "If this goes on for another couple of weeks, it could really damage the brand, massively."
Earlier this week, American Airlines had the dubious distinction of making a list of 10 brands that may “disappear” in the next year that’s put together by 24/7 Wall St.
“It was the premier carrier in the United States for almost 30 years -- surviving through periods when most other carriers went bankrupt,” Douglas A. McIntyre’s reports in MarketWatch. “However, it lost its critical advantage of scale when Northwest merged with Delta and Continental merged with United. Within two years, American became a mid-sized carrier.”
Somewhere along the line, it also lost its critical advantage of its well-burnished brand image.