'Tailspin' Gets a New Meaning

American Airlines' PR Blitz Struggles to Contain Anger From Groundings

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- According to its tagline, American Airlines knows why you fly.
The airline canceled nearly 3,000 flights, resulting in massive chaos documented in continuous images of snaking lines of stranded passengers seen on the web, TV and in newspapers.
The airline canceled nearly 3,000 flights, resulting in massive chaos documented in continuous images of snaking lines of stranded passengers seen on the web, TV and in newspapers. Credit: Rick Gershon

But last week it just couldn't let you. More than 300,000 American passengers were grounded in a PR calamity when nearly half of the airline's fleet stayed put for safety inspections of wiring that did not technically meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements.

Over four days, the airline canceled nearly 3,000 flights, resulting in massive chaos documented in continuous images of snaking lines of stranded passengers seen on the web, TV and in newspapers. It was not a good thing for American or an industry that seems to perpetually be juggling two to three crises at a time.

The Tylenol approach
American is taking the Tylenol approach to its crisis. Instead of keeping the planes in rotation and inspecting only a few at a time, it decided to take all of its MD-80 aircraft, the airline's workhorse, out of service. Realizing this was going to start a massive chain reaction of misery and anger among passengers forced to stand in those unending lines, American, along with the help of its PR agency of record, Weber Shandwick, immediately initiated a major crisis-communications plan.

Mike Flanagan, senior VP at Weber and agency lead on the American account, said the goal was to quickly convey two messages to its customers: what the situation was flight cancellations and how "we were getting them back in service," followed by "letting customers know we would do everything to reaccommodate them."

"We fly over 100 million passengers a year, and they are all important to us," he said. "A large percentage of them fly with us exclusively, so the most important goal was to stay in contact and let them know what was going on. And we used every communications channel we have available to us."
The Airline's Crisis Response
  • Immediately issued a press release to drive passengers to the advisory section on its website for updates

  • Communicated with frontline employees so they were prepared to deal with questions from travelers

  • Proactively and reactively worked with media through its news desk

  • Sent update e-mails to Advance members

  • Compensated stranded passengers

  • Continued to monitor feedback from customers, employees and media to keep stakeholders fully informed


That included employees in the airports answering questions, mainstream media, the web, e-mail and even a video of its CEO's press conference on YouTube. Going forward, Mr. Flanagan said the airline is considering adding paid media into its communications mix.

In a press conference where he took full responsibility for the problem, American Chairman-CEO Gerard Arpey said the airline had not yet calculated what the groundings had cost over the first three days, but said it would be in the tens of millions of dollars. Some analysts estimate that the cancellations have cost American $40 million to $50 million.

Long-term damage?
The question is whether the damage will be longer lasting, if consumers stay away from American. Dean Crutchfield, senior VP-marketing at Wolff Olins, a brand business, said it's too early to tell what the long-term impact will be for American, but added that passenger safety issues are not something people tend to forgive and forget so easily.

"This is a big issue," Mr. Crutchfield said. "I'm very interested in the knock-on effect this will have in terms of customer reaction because [safety issues] do become a conversation piece and concern point."

American, obviously wanting to monitor the long-term, has launched the second stage of its crisis plan, which is designed to do just that.

Mr. Crutchfield said the incident has become a defining moment for the CEO, whose name he didn't even know before this crisis began. "He can either lead or be crushed by criticism," said Mr. Crutchfield.

Mr. Flanagan said the airline's strategy included some new plays, including monitoring blogs, as soon as the crisis started. "That was an important part of our strategy," he said. "And we felt, in general, that the information was generally correct and balanced enough to where we didn't have to get involved in the conversation. Some of the remarks were tough to take and on some blogs people were actually defending us."

But not everyone was. On the Dallas Morning News' aviation blog, one reader responded to the "American's Gerard Arpey is profoundly sorry about cancellations" post by saying: "Excuses, excuses. He will take full responsibility by making sure he gets his eight- or nine-figure retention bonus at the end of this year."

American had 226 of its 300 MD-80 planes in service by Friday morning.
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