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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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