New questions about future of US Airways

Airline faulted for blaming workers for holiday woes

Luggage lost, flights canceled

Company must reassure passengers, experts say

December 30, 2004|By Paul Adams and Meredith Cohn | Paul Adams and Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Faced with a mountain of misdirected luggage and thousands of stranded customers over the holiday weekend, US Airways management hit the airwaves and blamed the debacle on workers calling in sick.

Big mistake, say crisis management experts and image consultants. They paint a picture of an already troubled airline that has blundered profoundly in recent days by pointing a finger at employees instead of reassuring passengers that it can operate soundly.

The latest blow to consumers' confidence in US Airways comes as the company feuds with workers over cuts in pay and benefits it claims it needs to emerge from bankruptcy.

Taken together, experts say, it's enough to make even the most battle-hardened crisis management gurus question whether US Airways can be saved.

"I guess the bottom line is that I think it would take a miracle for US Airways to pull out of this," said Wiley Brooks, a crisis management expert in Seattle who advised Jack in the Box restaurants after four children in the Pacific Northwest died from tainted hamburgers in 1993.

US Airways has signaled to the world that its workers are too unhappy to show up for work and management can't control the problem, Brooks said. The fiasco ruined Christmas for thousands, who in turn will become ambassadors of bad will for the airline at a time when it needs every customer desperately, he said.

The biggest danger, Wiley and other experts said, is that people could begin to equate internal dysfunction with concern for their safety at a time when they're already jittery over terrorism and the hassles of flying.

"For me, this is the worst kind of crisis for a company, because it's one that involves fear of the product, which is different from a pure reputational issue," Brooks said.

The airline canceled nearly 400 flights last week and lost track of more than 10,000 pieces of luggage. Management blamed the trouble on a surge in baggage handlers and flight attendants calling in sick. Labor leaders say they warned the airline about potential staffing shortages and that management failed to plan for the usual number of absences during the holidays.

"There weren't more people who called in sick this year on Christmas Eve over the same period last year - maybe eight or nine more," said Pat Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents about 5,600 workers at US Airways. "It's so astonishing someone in management didn't look at the historical numbers for this time of year and take steps to prevent what happened."

Regardless of who is right, image consultants say management blew it by taking its complaints about employees public.

"It doesn't make your passengers feel comfortable to realize there is an open rift between management and employees," said Tom Donahue, a senior vice president with Porter Novelli Public Relations in Atlanta and the former communications director for Delta Air Lines.

Experts say US Airways compounded the problem yesterday, when it called on employees who aren't scheduled to work over the New Year's holiday to volunteer for shifts at its Philadelphia hub. Those filling in as extra greeters and goodwill ambassadors won't be paid for the work, but those taking extra shifts as baggage handlers and flight attendants will get their regular pay, the company said.

"You don't fix a broken system with your employees by asking your employees to work for free," said Lynn M. Parker, a principal and founding member of Parker LePla, an integrated branding consulting firm in Seattle. Parker's mother-in-law was among those whose luggage was lost over the weekend. She had to go out and buy clothes to wear until her baggage arrived - four days late.

"You can't have a strong brand if your employees aren't pulling with you, and right now they're not," she said.

Since US Airways Group Inc. filed in September for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the second time in two years, it has had a sometimes ugly public discord with its labor unions.

Workers are the airline's biggest cost, and to survive US Airways has sought $1.5 billion in savings annually, including $800 million from its pilots, flight attendants, agents, machinists and other workers. With little progress toward concessions from unions that have already agreed to cuts twice before, the carrier sought and was granted temporary permission in October from the bankruptcy court to suspend its contracts and cut pay by 21 percent.

It recently sought to make the cuts permanent but since then has reached agreements with each union except the one representing machinists and baggage handlers. Analysts say last weekend's sick calls were likely a result of frustration among workers. They stopped caring about the airline's image because they feared they may not have jobs - or good jobs - in the new year anyway.

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