MEDIA AIRLINES: Media Roundup - Airline coverage shifts focus fromdelays to safety

Airlines have always been under the media's microscope. Recent

events have made that spotlight even hotter. Julia Hood looks at how the

press is treating the new problems that have arisen for the industry



Coverage of the financially troubled airline industry was once

restricted to the business pages, with news of consolidation dominating

the headlines. That, of course, was all before September 11. "Everyone

is an aviation journalist now," says Jennifer Pearson, managing

associate with Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates.



In the days and weeks following the hijackings of four commercial jets,

the government's decision to assist the companies financially has

attracted major attention.



The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, along with the

Associated Press and Reuters, have been busy covering the critical

issues of the day: safety and the financial impact on the industry.

Stories related to either subject are in demand right now.



One issue that is sure to gain wider coverage is the security procedures

for cargo carriers. "A lot of people don't know that cargo is under far

less safety regulation than passengers," says Chlopak's Pearson. "As we

move forward, everyone is interested in increasing safety and

security."



Mark O'Toole, VP of The Castle Group, claims that another safety issue

likely to emerge in reports about airlines is the use of technology to

enhance security. Biometrics - computer-assisted facial-recognition

technology - is already a hot topic. O'Toole says, "We will start seeing

a lot of technology stories about companies that have created some kind

of security technology, whether it is a fingerprint ID system or

whatever."



Coverage beyond safety concerns



O'Toole, who works with e-Travel, an online travel booking tool for

corporations, says the relationships between airlines and travel agents

will also be subject to greater scrutiny, in connection with dwindling

commissions and other problems resulting from tough financial times.



USA Today is one of the most important vehicles for airline news,

because of its broad readership among the nation's business and economy

travelers.



It also carries a balance of consumer and industry coverage. The

newspaper's Money section also includes six to eight daily blurbs that

give up-to-date information on the travel industry for the day, covering

everything from b-to-b to rental cars to airline delays.



Local newspapers can also be very important. "Strong regional coverage

is important because of the nature of the industry," says Chris Chiames,

MD of public affairs for Burson-Marsteller. "Both the Dallas and Fort

Worth papers have very strong aviation reporters because of the role the

industry plays in their economy." Chiames also cited the Chicago Tribune

and The Charlotte Observer as important for local coverage.



Most of the trade papers, such as Aviation Daily and Aviation

International News, are based in Washington, DC. Pearson says trade

journalists are extremely knowledgeable when compared with the huge

number of reporters whose beats suddenly include covering the

complicated airline issues at hand. In fact, many of the trade reporters

are pilots or ex-pilots. "They are just as interested in labor news as

issues related to safety, maintenance, ticket prices, and everything,"

Pearson says.



Safety was not the primary concern



Before the terrorist attacks occurred, consumer-travel media outlets had

been more focused on airline delays and passenger complaints. For

example, there were a couple of high-profile incidents in which child

travelers were put on incorrect flights. While these stories put

carriers on the defensive, few airline writers had been advocating

stricter security measures.



Chlopak, which has clients such as the Independent Pilots Association

and the Coalition of Airline Pilot Associations, commissioned a survey

to ask the traveling public about their biggest concerns. Fear of attack

was not travelers' greatest worry. Out of those surveyed, 82% picked

pilot fatigue as their major concern.



USA Today and other media outlets ran an item about the poll and, armed

with the significant public safety interest in the issue, the coalition

made pilot fatigue its primary safety concern for 2001. The data was

brought to the attention of Congress, resulting in 31 members writing to

the Federal Aviation Administration expressing concern. Unfortunately,

the issue has lost much of its momentum.



Pearson explains that the agency attempted to put the safety issue on

the map. "You need to speak technically to the trades and reporters who

cover airlines at the major dailies ... then you also have to speak to

the public. In order to do that, you have to highlight the consumer

issue."



From safety to recovery



O'Toole suggests that the media will now be looking for any signs of

recovery in the airline business. On September 24, Reuters reported that

airline stocks had risen on the news that the US government was offering

financial assistance. Two airlines also reported that load factors

(percentage of seats filled) has risen to around 50%, an improvement

over the previous week.



That same story carried news about airlines such as Swissair, for which

financial survival is still a major concern; the evidence suggests that

the industry is in for a long, tough ride. The sector has laid off more

than 100,000 people in the past two weeks, with Delta announcing 13,000

cuts just last Wednesday. Air Canada and Lufthansa made layoffs as

well.



An ailing airline industry has knock-on effects on other industries,

namely hotels, restaurants, and theaters, all of which are facing a

financial crunch. Coupled with the continuing PR efforts to reassure the

public that air travel is safe in the US, airlines and the agencies that

work for them are facing the industry's biggest challenge yet.



WHERE TO GO



Newspapers: USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall

Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth

Star-Telegram, The Charlotte Observer, Cincinnati Enquirer, Boston Globe

Trade publications: Aviation Daily, Air Transport News, Aviation Week,

Aviation International News, Business Travel News

TV & Radio: CNBC, Fox News, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC

Internet: Aerospace Online, AirDisaster.com, Aviation Safety Network



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