Airlines Mount PR Push to Win Public Support Against Big Oil

Beleaguered Industry Runs Risk of Looking Like 'Victims' and That Might Not Play With Public

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Help out the poor airlines: Pitch in to curb oil speculation.

That's what the CEOs of 12 major airlines, including Southwest, American and Delta, are asking. In an unusual move for normally cutthroat competitors, a who's who of top airline executives are banding together to send e-mails to their frequent fliers asking for aid lobbying legislators to restrict oil speculation.

The Stop Oil Speculation Now (SOS) effort and site, StopOilSpeculationNow.com, launched by the Air Transport Association of America, is attempting to divert consumer anger directed at airlines for nickel-and-diming them and instead make oil speculators the bad guys.

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"For airlines, ultra-expensive fuel means thousands of lost jobs and severe reductions in air service to both large and small communities. To the broader economy, oil prices mean slower activity and widespread economic pain," the e-mails read. The industry claims it will lose between $7 billion to $13 billion this year due in large part to oil prices.

David Castelveter, VP-communications for ATA, the airline trade association, said nearly 1 million messages were sent to Congress in the first two days of the campaign.

While this has all the hallmarks of a PR play designed to alleviate the drumbeat of negative press coverage the airline industry gets, Mr. Castelveter denied that's the case.

'Help themselves'
"We're not asking our customers to help us," he said. "We're asking them to help themselves in this issue that the country is facing. We're not asking for any bailout or subsidy. We're asking for legislation to bring the price of fuel down in this country. That helps every person."

But most others believe this is nothing more than spin. "There's no question that they went into this realizing there's an ancillary benefit of perhaps some sympathy for the airlines among consumers," said a PR executive. "You'd be naïve to think that isn't part of the equation."

It may, though, backfire with the traveling public weary of hearing about new charges for extra luggage, soft drinks and in-flight movies. "They are going to passengers who they have abused for years for help," said Chris Elliott, a travel blogger and reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler. "It shows the gall of these carriers to do this kind of thing."

He added: "It's a battle to rewrite history and cast the U.S. carriers as the victims. They are victims of their own bad management."

"Is it the airlines that grounded their airlines post 9/11?" responded Mr. Castelveter. "Is it the airlines that flew their airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon? Is it the airlines [fault that] 40% of their cost is fuel because of the high price of fuel? That's not bad management, those are factors well beyond the airline's control."
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