Thursday, December 01, 2011

Sic Transit: American Airlines in Chapter XI

My dad came home from World War II and took a job with American Airlines. It was opportune for him, the airlines boomed in the late 1940s as passengers flocked aboard the new four-engine piston planes that made flight both comfortable and fast. It was an exciting and romantic business, something ABC tries to capture, unsuccessfully, with its potboiler Pan Am.

This was a carriage trade back then. Fares were steep and coach class as we know it didn’t exist. That changed with deregulation. Fares fell off a cliff and airlines had to change. I recall gasps when Braniff announced a $299 roundtrip, DFW-London fare in 1980. That price stunned people, although in today’s money it would be a ho-hum $800. You can easily beat that. Some airlines, like American, adjusted. Some, like Braniff, didn’t.

Flying today is less romantic than riding the bus, although commercials by American and its competitors try to remind passengers of the glory days. Tiny seats so close together you can’t cross your legs prove more compelling.

My experience with American goes from vacations on my dad’s pass – getting up on my knees in the window seat to look at the big propellers on the wings – to enough business travel to earn gold-level AAdvantage status. That offered first-class upgrades, where there’s a whiff of romance left. At least I could cross my legs. And reading my dad’s copies of Flagship News years ago provided my introduction to internal communications.

This sea change naturally impacted airline public relations. I interviewed for a PR job with American several years ago. Romance tugged at my heart but reality pointed to the rows of cubicles emptied by multiple layoffs. I didn’t get the job. It might be just as well. PR becomes increasingly optional to a firm fighting to make a profit.

Having been through a corporate bankruptcy, I’m numb thinking about the challenge American’s PR staff faces. But the initial result seems good. I wish them well and every success in whatever the future may be.

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