Blame game is off the ground

Media scrutiny of the airlines and the FAA amid the ongoing industry crisis has pitted one against the other in a messaging battle.

Media scrutiny of the airlines and the FAA amid the ongoing industry crisis has pitted one against the other in a messaging battle.

When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) levied a $10.2 million fine against Southwest Airlines (SWA) March 6 for allegedly flying uninspected planes, the press focused on the airline side of the story. Headlines screamed, "What's Wrong with All Those Planes?" and "Tips on Avoiding Being Grounded." Slate.com found humor in the situation and went with "Just Plane Incompetent."

As the inspection crisis spread and other airlines canceled flights, including thousands at American Airlines (AA) in April, to comply with FAA directives, blame for inconvenienced passengers and safety violations seemed to shift from airlines to the agency charged with regulating the industry. One such New York Times headline sized up the crisis thusly: "Behind the Chaos: A Pendulum Swing at the FAA."

Pointing the finger
On Capitol Hill, Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, held a press conference the day after the FAA fine where he placed responsibility squarely with the FAA, alleging that industry whistle-blowers reported repeated mismanagement at the agency. He also said the governing body is too cozy with the airlines it is supposed to regulate.

The FAA and the individual airlines both sought to manage their respective reputations during the expanding crisis. Their responses reflected a reality in the airline industry: if the FAA or a particular airline wants to protect how the media and consumers perceive it, they have to give self-affirmative comments that, by proxy, fault the other organization.

When the FAA imposed its fine against SWA for allegedly flying 46 planes for nearly a year that had not passed mandatory inspections for "fatigue cracking," the airline initially fought back. SWA said the fine was unfair and it believed it had complied with the initial airworthiness directive (AD).

In a statement, SWA CEO Gary Kelly said, "Our interpretation of the guidance we got from the FAA at the time was that we were in compliance with all laws and regulations. I think the FAA has a different view of that today."

AA's comments, regarding the grounding of 3,279 flights, likewise put the company's stance at odds with the FAA.

When the FAA AD raised concerns about AA's bundling of wires in the aircraft's wheel wells, the airline's executives framed the move as the embracing of a suddenly stricter policy.

"The change... is that these audits are obviously not something that was anticipated a month ago," AA CEO Gerard Arpey told the Dallas Morning News. "That is additional surveillance on the airlines."

But the FAA denies any sort of sudden changes to its AD.

"The point that has been lost in the argument is that the airline had 18 months to complete their AD," says Lynn Tierney, FAA assistant administrator for communications. "Many of other airlines were able to complete the [ADs]."

While the airline publicly apologized for the inconvenience that was caused by the cancelations, Roger Frizzell, AA's VP of corporate communications and advertising, says, "Our view all along is that those planes could have flown and had been flying. [But] that's not really your communications message."

When asked how she feels the FAA can handle messaging considering that airlines accused of violations would likely try to assert their own respective safety and question the findings, Alison Duquette, FAA spokesperson, says, "We've been saying that... complying with our rules and regulations is a safety issue."

In the month following the SWA incident, the FAA issued numerous press releases and established new rules, including the "FAA Aviation Safety Action Plan" and the "FAA Aviation Safety Hiring."

Additionally, the FAA issued a federal directive to audit all the airlines to ensure their fleets were complying. More flight cancelations from Delta, Alaska, and United followed as the airlines worked to ensure compliance.

"It's an industry-wide issue," Tierney told PRWeek. "Overall, I think our message is still the same - we are working daily to maintain the regulatory role to ensure safety throughout the system."

Industry stresses safety
Despite SWA's initial stance, an internal investigation revealed some ambiguities in its testing and record-keeping, according to Kelly. About a week later, on March 12, it grounded 38 of its planes to further inspect them.

"Our key message was that we did not breach safety of flight," says Ginger Hardage, SVP of corporate communications at Southwest. "While we did compromise the strictest adherence to this directive, we never did compromise safety of flight."

SWA worked to strengthen that message through third-party endorsements, which came directly from its manufacturer, Boeing, as well as its unions and a former National Transportation Safety Board air safety investigator - all of which SWA's internal PR team distributed through its Web site, the corporate blog, and directly to employees, Hardage noted.

Duquette explains that the FAA, in addition to appearing in front of Congress, had been doing radio appearances, as well as the national morning shows. Tierney admits, "There [has] been mixed editorial support" for the FAA's message.

Regarding criticisms of "coziness," she adds, "You're in a relationship that requires constant communication... so it's ...too convenient to label 'cozy.'"

Key dates

March 6
FAA fines SWA $10.2 million.

March 7
Congressman James Oberstar reveals FAA whistle-blower allegations. Also, SWA launches an internal investigation.

March 12
SWA finds ambiguity in testing and takes 38 planes out of its flight schedule for the day.

March 18
FAA issues federal directive to ensure all airlines' commercial aircrafts comply with ADs.

April 2
FAA reports 99% of airlines comply with ADs and reveals safety action and comms plan.

April 3
House Committee holds a hearing on FAA oversight.

April 7
Airline Quality Rating shows record low public satisfaction with airlines in 2007.

April 8-12
AA cancels 3,279 flights.

April 10
Senate subcommittee holds an aviation safety hearing.

April 18
Dept. of Transportation unveils measures to improve FAA.

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