American Airlines, already struggling in bankruptcy, experienced a horrible week in just its first two days, proving one of the laws of crisis: A crisis will most likely strike when you’re already down and hurting.
The bad days started when a passenger on a 30-hour odyssey flight from Paris to New York wrote about the horrid experience on The New York Times’ op-ed page and it spread across social media by Monday. That won’t help attract business people to American’s trans-Atlantic flights. The writer claimed American’s crews are unfit to fly between Europe and the United States.
Then came reports that rows of seats popped loose in some of the airline’s 757s. All this comes with a backdrop of American’s parent company’s reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a labor dispute with its pilots and efforts by U.S. Airways to gobble it up. Did we mention that from 1979 to 2009 domestic airlines lost $67 billion?
Then, Tuesday, a mid-flight scare attracted notice — another law: a company in crisis draws inordinate attention out of proportion to the significance of the additional event — when a plane’s landing-gear jammed after take-off. The Dallas to St. Louis flight returned for an emergency landing 10 minutes later. Passengers were told to brace for a crash landing at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
But it’s a safe guess consumers are finding alternatives to American to reach their destinations.
As Daniel Gross wrote in the Daily Beast, “American Airlines reputation is in free fall.”
When it comes to crisis management, for obvious reasons, airlines are usually among the most prepared and their teams are the best at what they do. They have to be. I’ve heard an airlines crisis management team present its plan and they have it locked down, A-Z, perfect.
And, true to form, American responded to the loose seats issues promptly and factually, providing transparent confirmation and quick explanations. Not that an explanation along the lines of ‘our contractors and maintenance people failed to install the seat clamps properly,’ instills confidence or induces customers to flock back.
No doubt, as my grandmother used to say, this too shall pass. But the demonstration for all the rest of us is how crucial preparation is. American officials decided quickly and properly not to hide or blame someone else for the seat failures. That’s a sign of calm discussion and pre-planning in advance of a crisis.
The media spotlight will swing away from American, probably pouncing on some misplaced lint on Mitt Romney’s debate suit tonight.
Whether American recovers from the kicks to the ribs while it was already down remains to be seen.
For the rest of the flying public, plan for your crisis now, when there is no crisis.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.