US Air and American kick crisis PR plans into action

DALLAS and ARLINGTON, VA: Airline troubles dominated national news last week, as US Airways filed for bankruptcy and American Airlines announced layoffs and restructuring.

DALLAS and ARLINGTON, VA: Airline troubles dominated national news last week, as US Airways filed for bankruptcy and American Airlines announced layoffs and restructuring.

US Airways began preparing for the possibility of Chapter 11 in May through SEC filings and communications with employees. US Airways had tried to reorganize on a voluntary basis, but was unable to reach agreements with all of its constituencies necessary to make that happen. The company retained Sitrick & Company to help with contingency planning for the restructuring.

"We have tried to be open and public about this going back to May, said Chris Chiames, SVP of corporate affairs.

"We identified scores of audiences that we reached out to directly, beyond the news media, including retirees, employees, public officials, vendors, travel agents, and airport officials."

CEO David Siegel took part in a conference call to managers across the US at the same moment as the company announcement. Siegel also recorded a message for passengers to be played as the aircraft begins landing procedures.

A recording from Siegel also kicks in if a customer has been waiting for a long period of time on the phone.

US Airways' theme is clear: The company is still in business, and restructuring will make the airline stronger.

Chiames was appointed to his position in May, following the retirement of Richard Weintraub. Chiames previously worked for American Airlines.

His PR department has been expanded to include a government affairs expert and a staffer who previously worked as a director of consumer affairs for the airline.

The news from US Airways was almost upstaged by American Airlines' statement that it is cutting 7,000 jobs, reducing operations by 9%.

Tim Doke, American's VP of corporate communications, said that the issue has been managed in-house by a team of four. The corporate department also deputized PR staff from various operations - including flight service, customer service, and reservations - to target their specific areas.

Problems for the team arose when the employee communications effort resulted in leaks to some newspapers. The exclusive was given to The Wall Street Journal. Internally, the announcement was timed to hit the company website at 3am EST - the same time the WSJ website posted its story.

Doke said that the key messages for the company right now are to emphasize that the restructuring is a necessity, but that American is trying to minimize the hardship through voluntary separation packages and early retirements.

Doke also said that the company faces more difficult periods ahead. "Today's changes are not the silver bullet, and more are on the horizon as we reshape our business to better reflect the realities of the competitive landscape and the economic outlook for the country."

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