What’s Wrong With American Airlines?

on October 05 2012 1:43 PM
American Airlines
Loose seats and labor disputes are just the tip of the iceberg for beleaguered American Airlines. Flickr Creative Commons

The black eyes keep coming for American Airlines and, at least for now, the beleaguered carrier is rolling with the punches.

American announced late Thursday that it had come up with a fix for seats that have popped out of their moorings mid-air on three flights since Sept. 26. The carrier, the United States’ third-largest, said it had voluntarily pulled 48 of its Boeing 757s out of service to repair loose floor mounts.

The Federal Aviation Administration endorsed the move.

"The FAA is aware of American's decision to conduct further inspections on certain Boeing 757s and concurs with this step," the agency said in a statement Thursday. “Our safety investigation continues, and we’ll take additional action as appropriate.”

American has 102 757s, but the 48 in question share the same model of seats and are on planes that the carrier recently refurbished.

“We have identified the issue, and our maintenance teams are securing an FAA-approved locking mechanism to make sure no seat can be dislodged,” American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said Friday afternoon, adding that “repairs are complete on 40 of the 48 aircraft.”

Huguely said all of the 757s will be back in service by Saturday, but the process has already left several passengers stranded, with 50 flights canceled Thursday and an additional 44 canceled Friday. Moreover, the fiasco has become a public relations fiasco for American, with everyone from Slate’s Matthew Yglesias to the New York Times’ Gary Shteyngart advising the public to avoid the carrier at all cost.

Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group believes American’s problems go much deeper than wobbly seats.

“The brand is not only tarnished, it is scarred,” he said.

American Airlines’ parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection late last year, and the carrier has been beset by labor troubles ever since. The pilots are currently embroiled in a contract dispute and have engaged in what the carrier calls a slowdown. The result: more than 12,000 delayed flights and more than 1,000 cancelations in the last month alone.

American, for its part, says it has increased staffing and food available on flights and is offering travelers whose flights have been delayed by more than two hours three options: a full refund if they decide not to travel; help to reaccommodate on another carrier if available; or a flight change on American at no charge.

Yet, as American fends off merger talks with US Airways, many are questioning whether the carrier is entering its final tailspin.

“American Airlines used to call itself ‘The On-Time Machine.’ It needs to bring back a culture of reliability,” Harteveldt said. “Running an airline is about time management. It’s about getting travelers from Point A to Point B at the times posted in the schedule. If it fails to be reliable, it is an irrelevant business.”

Harteveldt said American Airlines -- which has historically had a much-lauded maintenance department -- needs to restore confidence in its procedures by helping the media, travel managers and the general public to understand the steps it takes both proactively and reactively.

In the long term, however, Harteveldt believes the company needs major changes.

“American Airlines’ issues are deep-seated, and if they are not addressed, the airline will not be able to recover,” he said. “It needs enlightened management who can come in and be un-American Airlines about the process -- to be customer-focused, collaborative and establish a culture of trust. It also needs to stand for something in terms of what it offers the public. Right now, there is nothing distinctive or unique about American Airlines.”

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