Monday, February 25, 2008

A Trainwreck of a PR Disaster for American Airlines

First Woman Is Denied Oxygen, Then Plane Supposedly Doesn't Have Any --- Result: Dead Passenger, Cannon Fodder For Hungry Media

You can be sure the PR staff at American Airlines is walking a perilous tightrope this morning.

On the one hand, you don't want to appear callous when a passenger dies on one of your flights, as Carine Desir of New York did Friday on a Haiti-JFK run after complaining she couldn't breathe.
At the same time, the airline is facing accusations that two oxygen tanks were empty and a defibrillator that could have saved her life wasn't working. Which means the potential for a nasty lawsuit is high.
Conclusions were no doubt drawn by lots of people who watch the story lead off Eyewitness News on WABC-TV right after the Oscars, which features an interview with the woman's tearful cousin, who was on the plane with her when she died.
All American would initially say Sunday was that doctors and nurses on the plane tried to save Desir. But first came another PR bombshell -- Desir had asked a flight attendant for oxygen and was initially refused. That was followed by allegations that all the medical equipment on the 757 was faulty, which American is denying, as the Airline Biz Blog in the Dallas Morning News notes:

We are investigating this incident, as we do with all serious medical situations on board our aircraft, but American Airlines can say oxygen was administered and the Automatic External Defibrillator was applied.
Among the preflight duties of our highly trained Flight Attendants is a check of all emergency equipment on the aircraft. This includes checking the oxygen bottles -- there were 12 in this particular aircraft.
We stand behind the actions and training of our crew and the functionality of the onboard medical equipment.

But nothing about the flight attendant who turned down Desir and relented only after other passengers spoke up.
While it's probably not a good idea for American to get into a he-said-airline-said battle, it's also vitally important to provide an on-camera spokesperson to at least explain what kind of equipment is onboard, emergency SOPs and that crew members are trained for these situations.
That can be done without having to refute address the actual incident except to say that all protocols were followed, assuming that's actually the case.
A prepared statement is no longer enough. By giving Desir's family unfettered access to
local media, especially in the New York market, you risk losing any control of the story, which can get very expensive when it comes time to settle the lawsuit that's sure to be filed in the days ahead.

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