An Inside Look at American

Oct. 13, 2006
A camera crew from the business news network CNBC was camping out in the center, documenting challenges great and small, as part of a documentary on the inner workings of the world's largest airline.

American Airlines' vast operations center in Fort Worth is always a place for high drama, as the airline battles bad weather, mechanical problems and the overwhelming complexity of monitoring 4,000 flights a day.

But during one August week, there was additional pressure for American employees. A camera crew from the business news network CNBC was camping out in the center, documenting challenges great and small, as part of a documentary on the inner workings of the world's largest airline.

"We think this is a great story," Wally Griffith, a field producer for CNBC, said as he sat with his film crew in the bustling center, waiting for some excitement to capture. "As travelers, there's a huge part of the airline system that no one ever sees."

The two-hour documentary, called Inside American Airlines, a Week in the Life, airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday. A rough cut of the film, distributed to reporters this week, is a largely positive, in-depth look at the airline's operations and business strategy.

CNBC deployed 11 crews at various American bases and locations nationwide, working as many as 14 hours a day, for a week. Crews went to San Jose, Calif.; Miami; Tulsa; Chicago; Haiti; and other spots, including American's Fort Worth headquarters and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport base.

The documentary, narrated by NBC News' Today show travel editor Peter Greenberg, demonstrates a certain amount of awe at the airline's huge, complex operation. The film also outlines the financial problems that have plagued the airline over the past six years, delves into the complexities of ticket pricing and airline maintenance and examines the art of fuel conservation.

CEO Gerard Arpey, a licensed pilot, was interviewed from the cockpit of his twin-engine Piper turboprop as he flew over North Texas. The show praises him for leading with an "outstretched hand" rather than an "iron fist."

American executives say it wasn't an easy decision to allow CNBC access to operations that are typically shielded from public view. The airline negotiated with the network for months before finally signing off on the project.

"It certainly was a risk for the airline," said Roger Frizzell, American's vice president of corporate communications and advertising. "But we felt like the opportunity to showcase what our employees do every day was something we couldn't pass on."

The American documentary comes several years after the debut of a reality television show about Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which continues to air on the A&E Network.

Southwest executives consider the show, called Airline, to be great marketing for the carrier's renowned customer service.

But the CNBC documentary is far more detailed than Airline. The network even got permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to install tiny cameras in the cockpit of an American flight from New York to Los Angeles.

Although producers were given an extraordinary amount of access, it wasn't without conditions. The airline had the right to pull cameras if necessary, in the case of a safety- or security-related event. And American deployed an army of public-relations staffers, from the airline and from contractor Weber Shandwick, to follow CNBC producers and crews at all times.

"There are days when we've had more minders than staff," producer T. Sean Herbert said as he prepared to film pilots being trained on simulators at American's flight academy. "It's not like we've been able to run wild around here."

Still, he added, "They really have worked hard to try to get us what we need."

Although they closely monitored the filmmakers, American did not have any editorial control over the documentary. That was crucial, said Mitch Weitzner, a CNBC senior producer of long-form programming.

"It's got to be real," he said.

Not everything in the film is laudatory. One scene shows irate passengers who have dealt with delays and an airplane without air conditioning. A customer complains loudly to the cameras about American's poor service.

The documentary also discusses the 2003 concessions that kept the airline out of bankruptcy, and the controversial bonus and pension perks that resulted in the ouster of former CEO Don Carty. And producers talked to union leaders about employee outrage over a slate of management stock bonuses awarded this year.

But it goes on to document Arpey's attempts to heal the airline's bitter labor relations and shows how that drive has had some success at American's maintenance base in Tulsa.

"American is a great business story and a great gee-whiz story," producer Griffith said. "And it's also a great people story."

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