In this year of air crashes, American Airlines has suffered aviation's worst collision with public trust. It is paying the Federal Aviation Administration a record fine of $1.5 million in civil penalties for "maintenance-related violations."
The airline was cited for flying a plane last May that was "unairworthy." In April, an American plane over New Mexico had an engine fall off. It was hit by a piece of ice that had formed from the water of an unrepaired leaky toilet. On another plane, a tire and wheel fell off on the runway. Someone had not installed a retainer lock pin after a tire change. Problems with wings, landing gears, takeoff controls and the use of plastic parts rather than the required metal ones were among the other violations covered by the $1.5 million fine.
American Airlines, which in its current campaign promotes itself as "something special in the air," is flying away from the fine as if it were a mere bump from an air pocket. A company spokesman in Dallas reports that no one has been fired. He was unable to provide the names of those responsible for the maintenance breakdowns. It was not individual people who were involved, he said, but "management systems." Under this general absolution, we are asked to believe that no living, breathing humans were responsible for designing and maintaining the planes. Nor was it the failure of any live human employes to fix the leaky toilet that caused the engine to fly off over New Mexico. That was "a design malfunction."
This playing down of individual accountability is in line with the comparative puniness of the fine. The FAA has collected $1.5 million from a company that had operating revenues of $5.3 billion in 1984 and record profits of $234 million for the first half of 1985. Not a dime came out of the paychecks of the invisible managers.
The FAA has praised the airline for cooperating with the investigation, which is now closed. It says the airline is operating safely. American, which under the agreement did not admit the violations, says, "What the FAA has suggested needs to be done, we have done. In no case was safety ever compromised."
The compromising occurred elsewhere. The company expresses no public regret and -- with no firings -- apparently sees the loss of $1.5 million as no cause for shame. American is practiced in all this. In 1979 the FAA hit it for $500,000 -- the largest fine imposed to that time -- for alleged maintenance violations involving a crash in Chicago that killed 273 people. American paid "under protest."
With the noise of a jet engine -- or at least one that works -- American Airlines, the two-time record holder, denies that it has betrayed the public trust. In its defensiveness, the firm apparently wants the public to accept the idea that paying this latest fine is the way to enhance public trust. In 1984 some 34 million passengers placed their lives in the hands -- and wings -- of this company. How many would have done so had they known about what the airline gingerly calls "the deficiencies"? Or perhaps American has a secret motto, "Let the flier beware."
No remorse or public apology has been expressed by the company. Its officials speak of "disappointment" -- not in its own workers but in the FAA for imposing the fines. It's those nuisance regulators again. The extra disappointment is that this is the Reagan administration, the one that loudly promoted "regulatory relief."
Aside from the fine, which is near-meaningless against the wealth of American, no mechanism exists for assessing the kind of public shame that is called for. Restaurants that violate health and safety codes are listed routinely in newspapers. That serves as both a public humiliation and a guide to diners to take their appetites and money elsewhere. Public shame has been endured by drug companies required by the Food and Drug Administration to run corrective ads for false claims for medicines. Why shouldn't punishment ads or shame ads be required of fined corporations whose employes make decisions that can mean life or death for the unsuspecting consumer?
The chief executive officer for American Airlines during this latest flyby over Violation City is Robert Crandall. If a company's attitude toward the public flows from the board room, here is Crandall's, as taped on Feb. 1, 1982, in a conversation with competitor Howard Putnam, then president of Braniff Airlines.
Putnam: "Do you have a suggestion for me?" Crandall: "Yes, I have a suggestion for you. Raise your goddam fares 20 percent. I'll raise mine the next morning." Putnam: "Robert, we . . . " Crandall: "You'll make money and I will too." Putnam: "We can't talk about pricing." Crandall: "Oh, bullshit, Howard. We can talk about any goddam thing we want to talk about."
This rare earful of a corporate conversation led to a Justice Department civil suit charging Crandall and American with attempted monopolization. The parties have agreed to a consent decree, with the government crediting the outcome to the taped conversation. While the case was in court, American Airlines promoted Crandall from president to CEO. In him, it saw something special in the air.