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editorial

Coat of paint doesn’t cover American’s ills

An American Airlines 737-800 aircraft with a new painting and the company's new logo was at a gate at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/EPA

An American Airlines 737-800 aircraft with a new painting and the company's new logo was at a gate at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

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Touting his planes’ new flag-like tail stripes and eagle-like nose decorations, American Airlines’ chief commercial officer Virasb Vahidi recently enthused that “being the flagship carrier of the United States of America is a privilege.” Alas, the United States, at last glance, was a capitalist democracy and does not have a national airline: American is no more the official airline of the United States than Southwest is the official carrier of cowboys and Indians.

Still, it’s easy to understand why American sought an eye-catching new look. As the airline emerges from bankruptcy — and as it retrenches by cutting flights at non-hub airports such as Logan — it needs to project a fresh and energetic image. But if the airline wanted to show its pride it might have spared a paint can or two and spent more on repairing customer service. The airline fares poorly in major customer satisfaction surveys, ranking no higher than 10th and 11th in two of them. Its regional affiliate American Eagle had by far the worst mishandled bag performance in 2011, according to an annual survey by Purdue University and Wichita State University. Meanwhile, the airline’s unions are clamoring for a merger with US Airways, seeking what they call a change of culture.

American is an iconic brand, and its new look prompted strong reactions pro and con. But the flag imagery on the tail ultimately matters far less than how the airline runs.

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