Networks: Bashing Airlines Is Just the Ticket

     The friendly skies haven’t been so friendly to fly this summer according to the network news media. But journalists have been quick to point the finger at business when the problem can easily be blamed on an outmoded computer system – owned and operated by the U.S. government.

     The friendly skies haven’t been so friendly to fly this summer according to the network news media. But journalists have been quick to point the finger at business when the problem can easily be blamed on an outmoded computer system – owned and operated by the U.S. government.


     “One of the knocks on JetBlue following this Valentine’s Day situation was that the airline had grown too big too fast,” Matt Lauer said to JetBlue’s CEO on August 20 “Today.”


     In another CEO interview on “Today” Natalie Morales went after Northwest Airlines Doug Steenland on August 15:


     “Well, let me ask you what the viewers are asking: ‘Why can’t this management admit’ that ‘they made errors and stop blaming the short staffing, poor employee morale, flight cancellations, and operational problems on the employees, especially’ the ‘pilots’?”


     Lauer also called this a “summer of discontent for airline passengers,” on “Today” August 3.


     “This week, the government confirmed what passengers already know that so far, this is the worst year on record,” said ABC’s David Muir on “World News Saturday” August 11.


     The hot summer has been not so hot for media coverage of the airline industry. In a month of coverage (July 27 – August 28) ABC, CBS and NBC have aired at least 21 stories highly critical of the airlines including attacks on American Airlines, Northwest, Southwest and JetBlue. Few stories made the connection to the failing air traffic control system.


     Only one airline received consistently positive attention during that time: Virgin Airlines owned by global warming philanthropist Sir Richard Branson.



Who’s to Blame for Your Delay?


     While the networks were quick to blame airlines and CEOs for flight delays, the media were not as willing to blame the government-run air traffic system.


     The Boyd Group, an aviation consulting company that has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek and other media, also faults the government-run Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic control (ATC) system.


     “The main cause of delays is the decades-long inability of the FAA to construct an ATC system that meets the demands of the air transportation system. The ATC system is not a static set-piece to which we must adjust our aviation system. Instead, it is a vital part of our infrastructure which the FAA has repeatedly failed to keep updated,” states the Boyd Group Web site.


     The Boyd Group continued: “The FAA has consistently wasted billions over the past 25 years, often on programs that only get so far and are then cancelled.”


     Despite that, some in the media want even more government intervention. On August 20, NBC “Today” host Matt Lauer asked JetBlue’s CEO Dave Barger “how would you feel about Washington getting involved [by passing a passenger’s bill of rights]?”


     Three days later on August 23, Lauer asked Larry Kellner of Continental Airlines, “If you can’t manage yourself, should the government step in?”


     Occasionally, even the media admitted that the FAA has problems that need to be fixed and sometimes even cause delays.


     “The FAA commission admits that runway collisions are an increasing threat,” said ABC’s Lisa Stark on August 15, cautioning that new rules could “lead to some more delays,” without attacking the airlines.


Media Play the Blame Game


     The networks berated airlines throughout August – accusing airline CEOs of “failure,” using flawed comparisons to make some airlines look worse than others and presenting “summer travel nightmare” stories.


     NBC correspondent Tom Costello bashed American Airlines – the world’s largest air carrier – for its flight delays on “Nightly News” August 20.


     “So far this summer, reported American Airlines has had the lowest on-time arrival rate at 65 percent. But yet another Dallas-based carrier, Southwest, has had the highest on-time rate at 78 percent,” said Costello ignoring the differences between the two airlines.


     While both airlines fly out of Dallas, Southwest flies out of a less congested airport than American Airlines. Southwest also serves only 64 destinations mostly with point-to-point service, while American Airlines uses a hub-and-spoke system to reach 158 destinations.


     A number of segments criticizing the airlines did not include airline representation, and even when NBC’s “Today” ran a series of interviews with airline CEOs that didn’t prevent journalists from going on the attack.


     Northwest Airlines CEO Doug Steenland went on “Today” August 15 and said that July and July saw a number of cancellations because “new work rules didn’t quite work out the way we were expecting them.”


     “They were sort of a failure, right? I mean, you added on the pilot’s hours while cutting pay,” host Meredith Vieira replied.


     A bit later in the interview Vieira criticized Steenland’s pay:


     “[They] took pay cuts to help save this airline at the same time that you were given almost 27 million in stock and stock options. They feel the whole weight of this has been on their back …and you’ve been making out pretty well,” said Vieira.


     Steenland defended himself telling Vieira “that number is just simply wrong,” and that his compensation is in the bottom 10 percent compared to other Fortune 500 CEOs.


     But NBC was not the only network attacking the companies. CBS and ABC also joined in the anti-airline reporting.


     “Worst Ever” screamed an onscreen graphic during a “World News with Charles Gibson” report about flight delays. That was August 6.


     ABC’s “Good Morning America” warned that more delays mean “there’s more risk than ever that they’re [kids flying alone] gonna get stranded or lost” in an August 7 story.


      “CBS Evening News” used a U.S. Customs glitch that stranded 20,000 passengers at Los Angeles International Airport as an excuse to attack airline performance on August 12.


‘Green’ Airlines Are the Exception


     Amidst the negative press for U.S. airlines the past month, Larry Kellner of Continental Airlines and Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic were given positive attention – no doubt because of their color: green.


     “This is a tough interview for me to do,” NBC’s Matt Lauer said to Kellner on August 23 “Today.”


     Despite Continental’s record of 68 percent on-time arrivals, falling behind Northwest Southwest and United, Lauer went easy on this CEO.


     “So, if you’re the world’s most admired airline, why can’t you do better than 68 percent on-time arrivals,” asked Lauer. After Kellner responded by mentioning heavy rain and problems with air traffic control, Lauer gave him a pass:


     “In all fairness, you also, your airline cancels fewer flights.”


     The interview also ended “on a positive note” as Lauer mentioned that Fortune magazine named Kellner a “green giant” for his contributions to the environment.


     On August 8 “Today” also reported on the launch of Sir Richard Branson’s latest venture, Virgin America. Following Peter Greenberg’s story, Meredith Vieira declared: “Love Virgin Atlantic, so I think we’re going to enjoy this one, as well.”


     Ann Curry responded, “Let’s take it to China.”


     CBS “Early Show” also praised Branson on August 7 saying, “If the new airline makes any money, it all goes to his true passion that’s the fight against global climate change.”