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How would you save American Airlines?

By Katia Hetter, CNN
October 5, 2012 -- Updated 2022 GMT (0422 HKT)
American can turn its fortunes around, says a business expert, if officials admit their problems and fix them.
American can turn its fortunes around, says a business expert, if officials admit their problems and fix them.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • American's problems can be fixed if management wants to make changes
  • The airline must convince passengers that its seats are safe and its planes will arrive on time
  • Employees are the likely source of most solutions to the airline's problems

(CNN) -- Loose airline seats. Flights that are delayed or canceled. The shifting blame game of who's responsible for American Airlines' ever-growing problems.

At the end of the day, travelers want to get from Point A to Point B safely and on time. They don't want to worry that their seats might come loose or that management and labor can't seem to get along.

American Airlines and any other company that can't fulfill its core mission on a regular basis, whether it's safe and efficient airline travel or safe peanut butter or cynanide-free Tylenol, may not be long for this world.

Clumsy fliers spilling Diet Coke and coffee on plane floors and seats, causing "gunked-up" seat-locking mechanisms, hardly seem to constitute a root cause.

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"These are solvable problems,"says Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who wrote about the mid-1990s turnaround of Continental Airlines in "Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End."

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"You have to take the right operational and strategic moves. You have to rebuild confidence. But it's by acting very quickly, not by a nice note to customers."

Troubled companies can be turned around, says Kanter, if executives take specific steps to address their problems and move forward. Add your own suggestions for how American Airlines can keep or earn your business in the comments below.

Admit what's broken and fix it

There's no doubt that American is having problems with its seats. However, Kanter says that's probably just the most obvious problem.

"The company needs to admit the facts publicly, put them on the table fully and take responsibility at the very highest levels of the company," she says.

And it's probably not just the seats.

"This is a quality failure of a massive kind and has to signal other quality problems," she says. "The situation is always worse than you think. There are a lot of other things that have deteriorated that you don't know about. You have to be digging deeper because I bet there have to be other things going on."

Who still wants to fly American?

Turn to employees for solutions

Any solutions must include pilots, flight attendants and mechanics, says Kanter. It's often the front-line employees who really understand what's wrong and can brainstorm the solutions to these problems.

It may be too hard to get current management to turn to employees for solutions, when employees are rightly or wrong being blamed for so many of the problems.

"These antagonisms have been building for many years," says Kanter. "In a turnaround, it's management that has to change because they'll never regain the trust of employees."

Spend money on the core business

With limited money to spend, "the airline must shift investment away from things that are not directly related to passenger and (front-line) employee experience," says Kanter.

"If that means some corporate staff need to have smaller departments, so be it. They should immediately shift company resources to people delivering the product and those experiencing it."

You need happy front line employees to deliver a good product to your customers, she says. And in the case of an airline, that product needs to be safe. "Every day people are deciding whether or not to board that plane and every day they can make different choices. The American board and top management need to take this incredibly seriously."

Many of you fly American Airlines frequently. What would you tell American or any airline to do to keep your business? What basic requirements do you have? What extras would you like, and would you pay for them? If you prefer another domestic or foreign airline, please share specific experiences.

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