Why American Airlines' stroller scuffle didn't lead to United Airlines-level fallout

Three experts weigh in on what American Airlines has done right, and what it still needs to do, in response to a clash between an employee and a passenger.

Screenshot from American Airlines' passenger video
Screenshot from American Airlines' passenger video

FORT WORTH, TX: American Airlines’ comms team helped the company dodge what could have possibly been severe, United Airlines-level fallout with its quick response to a video showing a flight attendant’s confrontation with a passenger.

United Airlines' and American Airlines’ situations are both disturbing. However, United’s incident, which stemmed from a passenger being physically roughed up and dragged off the plane, could be viewed as considerably more jarring because footage captured a violent situation as it was happening.

American Airlines’ matter involved a video posted to Facebook capturing the moments after one of its employees allegedly hit a woman with a stroller, narrowly missing the baby in her arms.

Still, by responding to its own incident quickly, American Airlines halted the matter from blowing up, crisis experts say. Just a few hours after the video was published on Facebook, the airline company issued a statement, which it put on its website. In the statement, the airline apologized, said it had launched an investigation to obtain the facts, noted it had upgraded the family affected to first class, and added it had suspended the flight attendant involved.

In terms of the tone of American Airlines’ statement, Philip Hauserman, VP and a crisis practice leader at The Castle Group, said it showed empathy and an understanding of the situation, and the airline took ownership of the issue from the get-go.

"The fallout could have been more severe if American had stood by its flight attendant’s behavior," added Ashley McCown, president of Solomon McCown & Company. "With its statement, American Airlines left no doubt it would hold its employee accountable."

CommCore CEO and founder Andy Gilman told PRWeek the airline’s response showed care and concern for its passengers. He applauded American Airlines' quick action and noted the statement was well-crafted and probably went through legal and PR review.

"We don’t know the context of the situation; you can’t bring strollers on a flight," said Gilman. "The statement is clear and factual. There are not a lot of adjectives and adverbs – you don’t want to use those in rapid response statements."

American Airlines had the added benefit of seeing how poorly United responded to its own crisis just a few weeks ago. American’s response shows it has been paying attention, noted Gilman.

As for the next steps, American Airlines needs to make good on its promise to internally investigate the situation and share results publicly. People want closure, said Hauserman, who added the airline might also want to make changes to the way it handles interactions with passengers and crew.

"If there’s any way to close the loop on this, it will be to its advantage with its passengers," he added.

Experts agreed the airline industry may be prone to more crises and challenges than others due to its stressful environment.

"As passengers, we want good fares, [flights] on time, great food, and friendly people sitting next to us. Those are hard things to do well," said Gilman. "Part of working in the business is operating with military precision. When something goes wrong from weather to food to employees doing the wrong thing, it is pretty visual."

Hauserman explained airline staff must start handling interactions as professionally as they can, keeping in mind there is no private moment with the advent of cellphones. 

Now more than ever, airlines need to be consistent with internal comms geared toward employees, whose buy-in and full participation is needed, said Gilman.

"[Airlines] don’t want to end up with a morale problem because employees feel like they have targets on their backs because people now feel like they can make fun of flight attendants and gate agents," he said.

Michelle Mohr, MD of corporate communications for American Airlines, declined to comment on the matter.

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