Posted November 17, 2009 10:55 am by with 14 comments

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What is it with airlines?

If they’re not breaking guitars, their pilots are missing airports, or they’re berating people that are trying to help them.

Well, we have one more reputation disaster to add to the list, courtesy of American Airlines.

You may recall the open letter web designer Dusting Curtis wrote to the airline. In it, Curtis suggested that AA was losing millions because of its poorly designed web site. He even went as far as suggesting a new design for the site.

Shortly after, one of AA’s designers took it upon himself to reply and explain the complexities of AA web site design decisions. His reply was open, honest…radically transparent.

American Airlines has allegedly fired him for it!

This may have happened back in May, but it’s only just come to light that the AA designer was apparently fired an hour after he wrote his reply.

AA searched their exchange database for the text I posted, found the guy, and fired Mr. X on the spot. From what I have learned, they also threatened him with legal action if he spoke to me again. Apparently he broke his non-disclosure agreement by discussing the design process at AA.

OK, so maybe he shouldn’t have broken his NDA with the airline. But, maybe AA shouldn’t have been so near-sighted and pedantic about its employee policies. Surely the airline is aware that it’s industry hardly has the best reputation for caring about its customers. Heck, even Jet Blue–the poster child of airline awesomeness–has screwed-up royally in the past.

In some ways, you can’t blame American Airlines. It is completely ignorant of how customers want to interact with the airline. We don’t want to hand flight attendants slips of paper that say “well done”–something AA encourages me to do as a frequent flier–we want to engage with the airline. We want it to do better, and we have ideas. Ideas about clean blankets, baggage fees, and yes, web site design. How does AA marry its apparent openness on Twitter, with this crackdown on a real employee that wants to help?

Yes, you should have guidelines in place, but those guidelines should be designed to encourage thoughtful customer interaction, not prevent it! If we hear that you’re firing employees because of their transparency, how are we supposed to take your official social networking efforts seriously? What, do we now assume that everything that is shared on Twitter or Facebook is nothing more than sterile, PR sanctioned, sound bites?

The airline industry may well be the very last to “get” the concept of Radically Transparent. When they do finally have that “aha!” moment, we’ll know that we’ve finally entered the age of open, honest, dialogs.

Andy Beal – AA Platinum Card Holder; Million Mile Flier.


  • This is an interesting story and could definitely go both ways. On one side you have Mr. X responding with a very professional, non-attacking, informative insider voice of AA. On the other end you have AA who has laid out policies for Mr. X of this type of engagement. The truth of the matter is Mr. X has gone out of his way to stand for AA’s brand image. He took the time to clear up any misconceptions of the site and wanted to better inform the user. This I think was a very powerful comment and the consequences, I think, were made way too quickly without any deep thought. The author of the original post probably was satisfied with the comment and definitely had a better understanding of the design. The end result is now making AA look like the bad seed. This type of engagement is extremely powerful for all companies; it brings a face to the organization with a real voice. It takes away any misunderstandings if dealt with correctly. Mr. X’s comment I think was handled very well.

    Very interesting though, thanks for the post.

    .-= Eric Ungs´s last blog ..e’s Week in Review: SEOmoz and WorkSnug =-.

  • I’d like to point out a few things:

    1. We’re taking this guy’s word for what happened. Not saying I don’t believe it, but we don’t even know this guy’s name.

    2. What he did was stupid on several levels. Again, not saying that he got what he deserved or anything, but sending an email violating your NDA from your company’s email servers is not wise.

    3. We don’t know the whole backstory. Perhaps this guy had been warned before about this, or perhaps AA has had problems with employees taking it on themselves to create a culture of transparency. Again, not saying it’s justified, just that we don’t know the whole story.

    Oh, and almost everything you hear on social media from Fortune 500 companies is vetted and sanctioned by PR and legal. Sadly, our society is too litigious for anything else.

    The comments on Hacker News about this story are really interesting:

    • I totally agree, hence I used the word “allegedly” in the post. 😉

  • This type of engagement is extremely powerful for all companies; it brings a face to the organization with a real voice. It takes away any misunderstandings if dealt with correctly. Mr. X’s comment I think was handled very well.
    .-= magnum4d´s last blog ..4D Tips for Wednesday 18/11/2009 =-.

  • Ok, first of all, your spam protection makes me think. But I do like it. Math is definitely a more interesting approach, although sometimes I feel stupid when is usually such an easy math and it takes me more than 5 seconds to come up with the solution. But stay away from captcha please: they make me feel like a spammer when I get one of those that not even a genius can decipher and I fail to punch it in right time after time.

    Second of all, thank you for your post. It validates my feeling (and I guess a lot of people’s too) that American is just too old and uptight. Every time I purchase a ticket with a site like priceline and I see that AA is on my schedule I start to shiver. They’re a company unwilling to change and adapt; boring is the word I’m trying to look for. And I got rid of my AA card long time ago when I saw that their prices were usually higher, even when they tell you their site offers the lowest rates.

    And third, well, I do also think their site is 1.0. Probably what this employee wrote was something similar to my second point: “Dear reader: Sorry, we’re boring. But don’t worry: we’re working on it!” –Paul
    .-= Paul L’Acosta´s last blog ..marketingfails: Original Latin translation of competition: "To strive together for the betterment of all" @AmyStark =-.

  • Now I know why I shouldn’t be so offended when I send open letters to companies, saying they need a redesign and I get no response back. The response may get someone fired!

    Thanks and Regards

    Noel for
    a graphic design studio

  • Jammer

    AA’s policy is in keeping with the dictator in charge in DC. It will be a much smoother transition when he nationalizes the airlines in the next 12 months.

  • Andy, radically transparent is a tough concept for a decades old global company in an ancient sector. While it’s true that they’re playing with modern tools on the web, it’s also true that this post could have been written about any large U.S. carrier and many others.

    I was 500K plus on Delta years ago when we disagreed about a deduction on my miles. I used the miles up and have never flown them again. United pulls boneheaded stuff too (not just the guitars, but read Batelle’s recent blog). But forget airlines and big enterprises for now.

    As some commenters already mentioned, Mr. X apparently broke a rule. Forget for a moment that the rule is in opposition to transparency. The rule apparently existed, and if this employee knowingly broke the rule (even alluding to his termination) then why is AA the bad guy here? It seems to me that if I write an employee a check, give them rules and they knowingly break the rules, then they deserve to be fired.

    Whether those rules are good business is irrelevant.

    • I agree that you shouldn’t break the rules of your company. I guess we can also agree that the rules need to be changed. 😉

  • Pingback: American Airlines anti-branding()

  • I really hope the terms “transparent” and “over-sharing” are not going to become universally accepted as synonymous. I really do.

    While I believe more honest and two-way communications between companies and their customers is becoming increasingly important, I think, at times, the transparency zealots go a little far with their hyperbole. This is one of those times. The opinion that everything should be shared by everybody is ludicrous. In this vein, I think the goal should actually be translucency, not transparency. There are some things that should stay “in the family”, to steal a line from the Godfather.

    Bottom line, as other commenters have said, he broke the rules. I also disagree with the notion that the rules should be changed, or that AA is in the wrong in any way. The letter in question, and specifically the “we’re talented individuals but stifled by a terrible culture/bureaucracy” theme did more damage to AA’s brand than their choice of discipline, IMO. It did not serve AA’s brand as much as it did the writer’s.


  • I think people should be careful to criticize or give recommendations to a company that they have hardly any or no insight in. You can never really be sure of what their motivation is to do things in certain ways. I can understand that Mr. X was only trying to defend AA, but he really shouldn’t have. The internal affairs of a company should in fact stay internal.

  • Dean

    This is a fascinating case study on social media that touches on many points:

    1. It shows that even a punk kid (whose own site ain’t nothin’ to write home about) who has never stepped foot in a “big company” and doesn’t know the bureaucracies, politics, and obstacles that inherently exist can cause such a commotion.
    2. How the widely held notion of social media demanding transparency and timely response can get you fired if your company doesn’t subscribe to that philosophy.
    3. The consideration that not not every comment must be met with a response. This was “Dustin Curtis”, not Seth Godin. Frankly, it didn’t warrant a response. How bad must this employee feel that he got fired because of his response to a unsolicited “Dustin Curtis'” web design critique.
    4. That ultimately, these so-called “stodgy” companies have billions invested in their their brand and need to be very careful how they approach social media. AA has thousands of employees that everyday could irreparably harm AA with a single careless Tweet. If I were the CEO of AA I would be stodgy too. I can deal with a customer who goes off about something that is core to the business – like taking care of luggage. But I don’t want to have to deal with employees who violate NDA rules by thinking that they need to respond to the “Dustin Curtis'” of the world on every single social media issue, because their irrational social media exuberance says they have to.
    5. Like it or not, a company has to control the message be it in advertising, PR, web, and yes, Social media. Giving employees free reign to respond without consideration and adherence of corporate policies is ridiculous. Can you police your staff? – no. Can you show them the door when they violate policy – yes. In this case it was a harmless comment about web design policies but tomorrow it could be a baggage handler commenting on how to best sneak explosives by him.

    I really think that from a corporate perspective, companies will treat social media just like any other communication media. Not with a loosey-goosey, “this is social media so there are no rules – have at it people” approach, but with a very strict set of roles, responsibilities and and strategic policies. Because in the end social media is just another communication channel. Albeit a highly uncontrollable communication channel, but a communication channel nonetheless.

  • Gin

    It is sad that AA penalized a employee for engagement with a prospective customer about a topic that is popular with everybody even our grandparents. Web design isn’t a gov’t secret and think they went a little too beyond prohibitive. Why even have a website allowing comments otherwise?