A safe message will serve airlines' merger well

American Airlines and US Airways have an opportunity to win support for the merger if they highlight the elements that are in the best interest of the public and its safety.

This week, the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against the merger of American Airlines and US Airways. This was a misguided decision because the public has become increasingly skeptical of the federal government's growing involvement in many areas. Moreover, the Justice Department's complaint does nothing to address airline safety, which passengers have become acutely aware of due to various high-profile incidents.  

While everyone supports competition and fair prices, airline safety remains top of mind for many. Last month, Asiana Flight 214 crashed in San Francisco, resulting in three fatalities and nearly 200 injuries. And who can forget January 2009, when Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger miraculously landed his US Airways jet on the Hudson River, saving the 155 passengers and crew on board. These high-profile incidents – and the intense public reaction to them – are reminders of how important airline safety is, particularly for these two airlines involved in the merger.

The Justice Department would have done well to keep these thoughts about government overreach and safety in mind before it tried to block the deal. However, now that it has gone down that route, American Airlines and US Airways have an opportunity to fight back. 

During major business deals, companies often talk too much about how their own bottom lines will be affected and not enough about how consumers will benefit. Most of the news coverage of mergers such as these focuses on the business perspective, leaving the general public without key information they need to know.

News coverage of the Justice Department's lawsuit has been pretty straightforward and the government's message is compelling at face value – it opposes this deal because it will lead to decreased competition and more expensive airfares. American Airlines and US Airways disagree strongly and need to get their messages out, but they have an opportunity to win support for the merger if they highlight the elements that are in the best interest of the public and its safety. As such, the airlines' messages should focus on the following: 

•Sustainable options. American and US Airways should tell consumers how the merger would lead to more of them. Passengers would rather have confidence in there being a handful of strong carriers than constantly worrying about their airline going out of business after they buy a ticket. US Airways went through bankruptcy reorganization twice in the 2000s and American has been in it since 2011. Such circumstances don't inspire confidence, but this deal will put the new American on solid footing.    

•Emphasize commitment to safety. The airlines have an opening here because the Justice Department did not make this an issue when it filed the antitrust suit. American and US Airways should talk about the lessons they have learned from past accidents and incidents and how they have made deliberate improvements. They need to tell the public that getting passengers to their destinations safely is their first priority, and that, as a healthy and unified airline, it will be able to make considerable investments in new planes with the most advanced safety features. 

•The benefits of a union. A key message should be that togetherness is better for the public – and the airlines. US Airways already tried to merge once in the last decade (with United), but the Justice Department blocked that deal. With American in bankruptcy right now, it's an easier sell to the public that these two airlines must join forces to be successful in the long term.     

•What's in it for passengers. Consumers just assume that companies are looking out for their shareholders and protecting their bottom lines, but passengers also want to know what benefits they get out of a deal such as this. American Airlines and US Airways should talk about how the merger will double frequent fliers' access to routes they couldn't use before. They should talk about the passenger's ability to receive and use rewards in an expanded network, along with all of the other perks a merger brings.  

Most importantly, the airlines need to take the Justice Department's key legal and messaging points away from it. Now is the time to make pledges regarding maintaining low prices, routes, and public benefits to ensure the public really receives them.

The government missed the mark on its decision to oppose the merger. Now it's up to these two airlines to make their case to the public and get their deal on track.

Sam Singer is president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. A former journalist and political campaign manager, he has spent the past 20-plus years helping a wide variety of clients develop their public affairs strategies. He can be reached at singer@singersf.com. 

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