American Airlines gives employees (and the public) a peek at its decision-making one podcast at a time

Key Points
  • American started posting "Tell Me Why" podcasts in January.
  • On Monday, the airline announced a new support-animal policy on the show.
  • Delta and United announced changes to their animal polices earlier this year.
Matt Nager Photogrpahy | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Earlier this year, American Airlines executives were batting ideas around about how to reach its more than 120,000 employees. They quickly settled on a podcast format.

American debuted "Tell Me Why," little bites of corporate wherefores, in January, in response to an internal survey that found employees wanted to hear more about rationale behind the company's decision-making.

In breezy episodes generally no more than eight minutes long, host Ron DeFeo, American's vice president of global communications, sits down with a guest, usually one of the carrier's executives, giving them a platform to discuss the airline's strategy.

The podcast is meant for employees, and most access it on the company's internal website, Jetnet. But DeFeo said the team decided to post the show publicly on iTunes and Soundcloud because such information tends to make its way to the public anyway.

"There really is no such thing as internal communications anymore," he said.

Podcasting isn't new for corporations, but the format of American's and its release to the public is "very uncommon," said Rohit Deshpande, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School.

The company is effectively saying: "We don't want employees to say things that are different than we are telling our customers," he said, adding that internal and external communications are often separate groups.

"Tell Me Why" topics have included American's rationale behind adding certain routes, the introduction no-frills basic economy fares, or why it decided not to hedge fuel even as costs rose. Other subjects have included more workaday issues that would be familiar to many employees at a large company like contributing to a retirement fund and wellness rewards.

The airline is essentially blurring the line between internal and external messaging, and the audiences for that information, Deshpande said.

On Monday, with the rollout of its new rules for passengers wishing to bring emotional-support animals on board its flights, it used the podcast to explain the rules.

The podcast explains how the airline makes money. Vasu Raja, vice president for network planning, used a Feb. 21 episode some routes from New York to the Caribbean that were axed because the airline wanted to drive more traffic through its hubs, and New York airports are usually travelers' final destination.

"When we fly Buffalo to Dallas, we don't just make money on people going from Buffalo to Dallas. The real money is getting people from Buffalo to Austin, and Asia and Mexico and places like that," Raja said on the show. "We can earn disproportionately large revenues versus our costs."

The airline is still focused on routes popular with high-value business customers from New York, however, Raja explained.

American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said the "Tell Me Why" episodes are played on average, about 12,000 times, 2,000 times externally — a relatively small audience compared with blockbuster podcasts that can top millions of listeners a month.

New rules for emotional-support animals

The rules unveiled Monday for emotional-support animals aired on its 19th "Tell Me Why" episode.

Starting July 1, American Airlines says it will restrict certain kinds of animals, like insects, hedgehogs and goats. Passengers traveling with a support animal will be asked to sign a waiver that states the animal can behave in both the gate area and on board, Suzanne Boda, American's senior vice president for Los Angeles, said in the episode. American also said passengers must notify the airline 48 hours ahead of time if they are traveling with a support animal.

American added that for flights over eight hours, passengers with such an animal will have to provide documentation that states the animal won't need to relieve itself or "can do so in a way that doesn't create a health or sanitation issue."

The episode features a company executive, and Albert Rizzi, founder of My Blind Spot, an advocacy group that has been working with American to help make the airline's platforms more accessible for blind and vision-impaired passengers.

American's competitors Delta Air Lines and United Airlines announced stricter policies for bringing an emotional-support animal on flights earlier this year. Such animals have proliferated in cabins, and airlines, their employees, and passengers have complained about soiled cabins, allergies and even faced injuries, prompting questions about whether these animals are actually trained to provide support.

American said the customers transporting their service or support animal on board increased more than 40 percent from 2016 to last year.

An episode of American Airlines' "Tell Me Why."
Source: American Airlines

American also plans to train its customer service agents before the new rules are implemented "because it is a very delicate situation," Boda added.

The airline, which said it consulted with groups including the the Association of People with Disabilities, Paralyzed Veterans of American and the American Council for the Blind, in addition to My Blind Spot, said it isn't making changes to its service animal policies.

Rizzi, from My Blind Spot, who appeared on the show with his guide dog Vaughn, said he applauded the new policy, saying it could help individuals who have trained service animals fly safely.

"It's hard to discern the difference between people passing off a pet as an emotional support dog versus a legitimate support animal that's there to mitigate a disability," he said.

On message

DeFeo, who said he is not a big consumer of podcasts, grew up listening to talk and news radio, including New York's 1010 WINS. He collects questions from employees and said he has a full pipeline for upcoming shows.

It's an unusual approach for an airline. "Most corporations in aviation, I think, are pretty conservative and like to control the message," said the host of Airline Geeks podcast, who goes by the name Max Flight. "Podcasting and even social media in general … they're kind of wary of it."

Still, there are many thorny issues that "Tell Me Why," doesn't touch, usually of the more sensitive variety such as negotiations with pilots and disputes over new uniforms, which flight attendants said made them sick.

The airline holds town hall-type meetings with its employees, audio from which it doesn't make public. In a recent meeting, CEO Doug Parker received a complaint from a flight attendant that the airline's new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft was too cramped for flight attendants.

"If you gain an ounce, you're not coming down the aisle," said the flight attendant, according to audio heard by CNBC. Another executive said the airline has slowed down the water flow from the lavatory to avoid splashing from the small sink.

"I don't think we'll ever" get into some of those debates, said DeFeo. "I think right now it's seen as a straight forward, educational platform from leaders to hear about news and events at the airline and learn a thing or two and hear from leaders they don't see on a regular basis."