Last night, American Airlines Chairman & CEO Gerard Arpey won an award, but not the good kind. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann dubbed Arpey and American Airlines the “Worst Person in the World” for August 12, for its policy of charging soldiers heading to Iraq the much criticized and resented “extra baggage fee.”
In bestowing American and its CEO the “worst person” award, Olbermann said American was, “nickel and diming our soldiers,” and “asking our troops to file expense reports while getting shot at in Iraq.”
This morning, I spotted blog items dated August 12 from the Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Houston Chronicle which said that earlier reports from July 30 in the El Paso Times and Consumerist.com weren’t entirely true.
I know what it’s like to be caught in the drive-by shooting style journalism of the blogosphere, so I gave both these posts from the Chronicle and the Star Telegram a very close read, but I’m unconvinced. To me, it looks like the media relations team at American is still splitting hairs.
Here’s what American told its home town paper, the Star Telegram:
- It admitted it charges soldiers a baggage fee for a third checked bag and anything beyond that.
- It admitted that soldiers have to front the military the cost of the fees and must wait for reimbursement from the military and it dismissed that as an issue of concern.
- It claimed it only charges the fees to soldiers travelling from one base to another, but not if they’re traveling to a war zone. True, but what American doesn’t say is that often soldiers must travel to a base for training BEFORE they are shipped to Iraq or Afghanistan. They also are charging the fee to National Guard and Reserves members who sometimes must bring their own equipment when they travel. Remember the soldiers who had to buy their own “body armor”?
By parsing the policy’s specifics over the last two weeks, the American has suffered a death by a thousand cuts. Yesterday, the Veterans of Foreign Wars called for the Air Transport Association to end to the practice. (You know it’s bad when the VFW is chasing after you.)
How could American have handled this situation differently when the El Paso Times first called them on July 30?
Here’s my recommendation:
- Apologize right up front for this individual customer’s experience and emphasize an offer to investigate. (The Times reported the check-in agent matter-of-factly stated that the soldier should have gotten a voucher from the Army if he wanted to avoid the fees. It sounds like he was made to feel it was his fault that he didn’t have a voucher — something he’s never been asked for when flying American on previous military assignments.)
- Stress that the policy was developed in consultation with the military with whom American contracts with to transport passengers to civilan locations around the world.
- Offer the possibility that the policy may change based on feedback from American’s customer, the U.S. military.
- Show some empathy for the soldiers. Acknowledge that the policy which forces soldiers to seek reimbursement is not ideal from the soldiers’ perspective, but that this is consistent with and required by government regulations for official travel.
- And lastly, don’t deal with the reporter via email as this American spokesman did. In a real conversation, you can convey empathy and emotion in a way that you simply can’t in an email. Plus, you can sense if the reporter understands what you’re explaining and you can handle follow up questions.
What suggestions would you offer to the media relations team at American? And if you work in media relations at a competing airline, what are you going to say when a reporter calls you to ask about your company’s policy?
BTW, if you’re in PR at Southwest, you don’t have to worry about this issue. Your airline doesn’t charge extra baggage fees to traveling soldiers. Period.
Yet another reason why I love Southwest. I’m guessing the people in pricing on their marketing team had some idea just how unpopular such a decision would be with the travelling public.