It is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between American and America.
American is a once-proud airline run by AMR Corp. (NYSE:AMR). America is the greatest nation ever formed on Earth.
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If you have trouble telling them apart, it may be because both are currently bankrupt, yet somehow keep flying.
Ratings agencies have downgraded the debt of both American and America in past years.
Both spend more than they take in; both manage rising costs; both negotiate with demanding special interests, including unions. They both have leaders interested in maintaining their wealth and/or power at almost any cost, even in the face of insolvency. They both have had their rising share of emergency landings.
At American, seats are coming loose in the middle of flights. In America, seats are about to plunge off a fiscal cliff. Ladies and gentlemen, please sit back and enjoy the flight.
American isn't just a metaphor for America. It is a microcosm of America. It seems someone always leaves the lavatory door open for too long and pretty soon the whole cabin stinks.
Like so many other industries in our allegedly free-enterprise system, the airline industry is heavily subsidized. Airlines, for instance, don't build air-traffic control towers, runways or airport parking garages. The government does that. And where airlines aren't directly or indirectly subsidized by governments, they are subsidized by the bankruptcy process.
Were it not for Chapter 11, there would not be many major airlines alive today. Stiffing creditors, crushing investors, ditching pension plans, and axing employees is how they stay in the air.
American must be a well-run airline because it is only on its first bankruptcy, filed in November. Many other airlines, including Delta Airlines In.c (NYSE:DAL), Northwestern Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways (NYSE:LCC), had already filed for bankruptcy twice. They are lucky they didn't end up like Pan Am, or as the old joke goes, Pan Ain't.
American faces this same fate. But it is the American Way to fight.
American's union pilots have rejected a reasonable contract offer that would have saved the airline $300 million a year. A federal bankruptcy judge then gave American's management the OK to impose cuts on them anyway. The pilots wouldn't have it, though. They recently took up a strike vote, but Wednesday they also returned to the bargaining table. Pilots, represented by the Allied Pilots Association, make up one of the strongest collective bargaining units on the planet. No pilots, no airline.
Since early September, American's flight delays and cancellations have skyrocketed. Management has blamed pilots calling in sick, and requesting maintenance for items that don't need repairs. Pilots deny delaying flights. And their union boss has asked them to stop, that is, if they are in fact doing such things in the first place. Pilots are blaming the delays and cancellations on American's aging fleet.
It is the same likely story we see all over America: We're-all-going-to-hell-and-it's-somebody-else's-fault.
And of all the nutty headlines about incidents on airline flights, who ever heard of seats popping loose? This doesn't even happen on a Greyhound bus.
Somehow, someone improperly installed the saddle clamps. American's union maintenance workers say it wasn't them. They blame outsourced labor. American's management has suggested it could be a combination of both. And some observers have suggested it could be employee sabotage. It sounds like testimony from a Congressional hearing.
The Federal Aviation Administration is stepping up its scrutiny. Some people say regulation is crushing, but when an industry can't fasten its seats properly, it begs for crushing regulation.
The good news is, business always goes on, and it is a wonderful time for American's competitors. The ever-controversial discount carrier Spirit Airlines is mocking American with an ad that reads, "We Let Fares Loose. Not Seats!"
Social networks are atwitter with jokes that could take a PR campaign years to overcome. On Wednesday, for instance, comedienne Joan Rivers tweeted: "Great Flight! My seat wasn't accidentally upgraded into the cockpit, and the seat next to mine was empty."
Empty, because American's once loyal customers are asking, "Why fly American?" But I say, why not fly American? Our airline industry, like our nation, is insanely unsustainable. We are Americans, and we put up with this. American is the airline we deserve.