According to a survey first published earlier this year in Time, almost two-thirds of adult Americans believe that flying is less safe today than it was five years ago. By far the most serious problems, they said, were aging aircraft and poor maintenance.
These findings, while not particularly surprising in light of the catalog of disasters and near-disasters splashed across the front pages of the nation's newspapers in the past 12 months, puts airline marketers in a quandary. For them airline safety is, of course, an issue, but it is one that they would rather not talk about.
While every airline wants to be perceived as safe—and preferably safer than its competitors—none of them wants to come out and talk about safety. Talking about safety is dangerous for two reasons. The first is that the more you tell passengers how safe you are the more doubts you put in their minds: "If this thing is so safe, how come they need to keep trying to convince me it's safe?" The second is that in reality disaster can strike even the most careful, and if you spend millions of dollars telling people how safe you are and two hundred people die when one of your 737s crashes out of the sky you're credibility dies in the crash too.
All of which, obviously, leaves airline public relations departments in a bind.
"We don't really deal with safety from a marketing point of view," says Al Becker, director of external communications for American Airlines. "What you do about safety is you do it; you don't talk about it. It's the most important thing you do. It's pervasive in all the procedures you follow, in recruitment processes, in the training you give staff, the care you take."
Actually, what American Airlines does is hint at it, or approach the subject obliquely. In its advertising campaign, for example, American doesn't come out and say: "We're safe because we have this great ground crew that looks after our airlines and makes sure they don't crash out of the sky." What it says is simply: "We have this great ground crew."
Becker confirms this strategy; "There is no advertising or public relations campaign built around the safety issue," he says. "What we try to do is stress the professionalism of our people, the skills and training of our people, especially our pilots and our mechanics. We believe that if we sell our professionalism, the marketplace will take care of itself."
That doesn't sound like a particularly radical strategy, but it's further than most of American's competitors are prepared to go. They're more comfortable talking about the number of international destinations they serve, or the wonderful benefits of their frequent flyer programs, or how beautiful their hostesses are. And on the whole they're skeptical of American's strategy.
"You should talk to someone at American," one of their competitors said. Then added: "There's a company that's riding for a fall."
Jim Lundy, manager of PR at Delta Airlines, admits that safety is a difficult subject, and one that has caused much internal debate.
"You look at something like security and you're very limited in what you can say. You can say you're improving security, but you can't be more specific, because if you give out details of what you're doing then somebody is going to find a way to beat the system. When we get inquiries about security our response is simply that we take whatever steps are necessary to protect our passengers."
But, he says, Delta has never gone out seeking coverage on the safety issue, preferring to respond to inquiries rather than instigate more coverage of the issue.
Given the frequency with which mishaps appear to be occurring, coverage is already greater than the airlines would like.
In December, a bomb destroyed a Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people; in January 44 passengers died in England when the crew of a 737 apparently shut down the wrong engine; only a few weeks before a 14 inch hole appeared in the fuselage of an Eastern Airlines 727 forcing an emergency landing; and again in January a Piedmont 737 lost an engine—literally: it fell off—in Chicago and was forced to return to the ground; then a door blew off a United 747, sucking nine passengers out off Hawaii.
When Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a research firm, polled Americans earlier this year they were divided almost equally over whether air travel is very safe (42%) or not very safe (43%), but 64% said it was less safe than it was five years ago and only 20% said it had improved. The major problem, people said, was aging aircraft (72% said it was a factor). Another 70% blamed poor maintenance. Compared to these figures, the 60% who cited terrorist threats as a factor were a fairly small percentage.
Figures suggest that those surveyed have their priorities right. The average age of airplanes in major carriers' fleets is 13 years. Some carriers, like Eastern, Northwest and TWA, have fleets more than 15 years old on average. This does not compare well to foreign fleets. Lufthansa's fleet averages 7.7 years old; Singapore Air's is less than five years old.
John Lampl, director of public affairs in the US for British Airways, is proud of his airline's safety record and believes that record is one of the reasons for its success.
"Although we don't discuss our safety problems externally, it's our number one priority internally," he says. British Airways has a massive employee communications program that trains staff not only in courtesy but also in how to reassure passengers who may have fears about air travel. "Basically," Lampl says, "what we do is make sure we are always honest with our passengers. If there is a problem we tell them, we try to explain the nature of the problem and what we are doing to solve it. I think most of our passengers appreciate that kind of honesty."
And like most of his counterparts, Lampl likes to remind anyone who asks that: "Statistically, air travel is still safer than driving an automobile."
If there is one international carrier which has a reputation for safety more impressive than any of its competitors, however, it's El Al. Like its American competitors, El Al's public relations people don't like to discuss the subject, but they have found a way of letting the airline's safety record speak for itself.
"If you talk about how safe and secure you are, and you boast about your record, it's like issuing a challenge," says Gerry Schwartz, whose New York PR agency handles El A1 in the United States. "You're asking for trouble.
"But there are some aspects of what El A1 does that make it obvious how much care we take over our passengers' safety. For one thing, El A1 makes sure that most of its flights are non-stop: that way there are fewer opportunities for security to be breached. They
see our security guards and they see how well-trained they are, how professional they look.
"Similarly, we ask people to arrive two hours before departure for international flights, rather than just an hour. People know they are arriving early because the security checks on El A1 are more extensive. Most of them are prepared to accept the minor inconvenience because they know it makes them safer."
Even Bill Jackman, assistant vice-president of public information at the Air Transport Association of America and thus the man charged with representing the industry on this issue, concedes that El Al's safety record is impressive. Individual airlines like Delta—whose Jim Lundy speaks glowingly of the Jackman's work—are relying on the ATA to present their position.
"A lot of the airlines don't feel it’s appropriate for them to talk about safety independently," Jackman says. "It's not unheard of, but historically it is unusual. Clearly it's something they feel can backfire. If you talk about safety and then there's an accident you look worse than if you had kept your mouth shut."
Even the ATA prefers to delegate responsibility for quoting statistics to the US government. Much of the ATAs work in the past couple of years has involved giving extra publicity to government statistics that show how safe flying really is in comparison to other forms of transport, and government statements on security procedures. The third party endorsement, Jackman says, adds further credibility.
"The fact of the matter is that we do have a problem of perception, particularly now that the media is covering even little incidents, incidents that would not have received the same kind of publicity a couple of years ago," Jackman says. "At the same time, flying is still safe. And flying with American carriers is still safer than flying with international carriers. We have to get that across to people, and it isn't easy, but we think we're succeeding."
For all the fears about worsening safety standards expressed by the American public, there is no sign that air travel is becoming less popular. And that, for the airlines and for now, at least, is the bottom line.