Is American Airlines the New G.M.?

Jul 26, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

As I watched Chrysler and General Motors slip into bankruptcy, my mind started to wander to the current state of the airline industry in the United States.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, the domestic airlines provided excellent service. The planes had bright interiors. First class meant really special service. Coach passengers were treated well and were offered a choice of good meals, free of charge. There was more leg room in coach.

Didn't the airlines have some of the best jingles in their radio and TV commercials? In other words, the commercial airlines were truly competing with each other to make their passengers feel special --pampered and respected.

Similarly, the '60s were the last glory years of the American car industry. By the 1970s car enthusiasts knew that true innovation in the industry was coming from Germany and Japan. It was the Hondas, Toyotas, Mercedes and BMWs that grabbed everyone's attention. Foreign cars were known for their better handling of the road and, in many cases, better gas mileage.

Increasingly, it was clear that the American car industry was mired in the past and out of touch with consumers. GM and Chrysler were making lousy products. How often did we hear GM promise that they were on the verge of making competitive vehicles, or worse, claim that the vehicles they were already producing were competitive?

Did management really believe their own hype? Had they lost enthusiasm for making great cars? Did they realize how bad the product had become, and how inefficiently the company was run?

Back to the airlines. A couple of weeks ago I had to fly from Boston to Los Angeles. For $99, on three days notice, I grabbed a ticket for my first flight on Virgin America. What an experience! I walked into a cabin that was drenched in lavender neon, with quiet but excellent techno music playing. The effect was a bright but relaxing atmosphere. I felt like I was in a quiet room of a club in Southbeach. The plane was equipped with wi-fi and in front of each seat was a computer that provided entertainment (satellite TV, movies, Ted Talks, videos), the ability to text passengers in other seats, and contained a menu of food and drinks that, when chosen, were brought to you by the steward. The bathrooms were clean and music was played in them throughout the flight.

While I was settling into my seat and taking in this fabulous atmosphere, my mind drifted to a phone call I'd had with American Airlines a week before. I had been called by the Platinum desk to inform me that I'd flown over two million miles on American.

I was now a Platinum member for life. She then said she'd noticed that I'd recently been flying the airline less frequently. She asked why.

Where to begin? I used the Nashville to LA flight as my example:

  1. The cabins were dark and cheerless.
  2. The bathrooms, including those in first class, all reeked by the middle of the flight.
  3. Even in first class you could no longer order a special meal if you had dietary health issues.
  4. I had been on planes that suffered too high a rate of mechanical issues.
  5. The flight attendants as well as employees behind the ticket counters are great people, but generally resentful of the way they are treated by management. In fact, I've yet to meet a flight attendant who believes their last contract was truly ratified, since no one seems to know any colleague that voted for it.

Let's face it. American Airlines -- along with Delta, US Air, United, Northwest, et al -- have browbeaten the customer into accepting a flying experience more comparable to a bus ride than an airplane. This past week, we were informed that the regional jets associated with Delta and Continental are often flown by pilots who have failed multiple piloting tests.

Here's another example of how the airlines are not paying attention. At the end of last week it was reported that Continental Airlines, which charges $75 extra per flight to ensure that that unaccompanied children arrive safely at their destination, had lost two children on two separate flights the previous weekend. Lost luggage is bad enough. Lost children?

Furthermore, a survey of 1600 fliers released by SeatGuru last week found that American, US Air and United have the worst food as well as ranking near the top for the rudest flight attendants. Singapore and British Airways (along with Southwest in one category) have the best.

Delta, US Air and United have already been through bankruptcy. They promised to run leaner, more consumer-friendly airlines. Passengers know they're not much different than before. Worse, as service continues to decline, the salaries of the CEOs somehow continue to bloat. Yet, outrageously, they demand that their workers take huge pay cuts.

Like the American auto industry, our airlines were the first and the best. They were models for airlines in other countries. But now it's other countries and the Richard Bransons of the world that are leading the way in delivering a great product.

As we flew over Detroit, I couldn't help but think it sounded all too familiar.