American Airlines is apologizing after employee complaints about a photo in the March issue of its in-flight magazine depicted bartenders preparing cocktails while dressed as pilots.
The story in the March American Way profiled Australia’s restaurant scene, including two entrepreneurs who operate a mobile cocktail bar business that uses trolleys from the defunct Ansett Australia airline.
The print version of the story featured two photos that bothered pilots and other American employees. One shows the pair of Australians preparing and holding drinks while wearing pilots’ costumes with jackets, caps and aviator sunglasses. The other features a close-up of a hand lighting a cocktail, with the faux-uniform in the frame.
Any connotation of alcohol in the workplace is a sensitive issue in the safety-conscious airline industry. While instances of pilots being drunk on the job are exceedingly rare, they tend to get outsized media coverage or end up dramatized in Hollywood films.
The portrayal drew criticism from the president of American’s pilot union, who said the publication of the photos “reflects extremely poor judgment.”
In a message to employees last week, an American executive called the photo “appalling and disrespectful to the aviation profession.”
“A huge apology to our team and especially our coworkers who are pilots. … We know that a photo depicting pilots drinking in uniform is not appropriate,” vice president of global communications Ron DeFeo said Thursday. “Even in jest, if that’s what this is, our aviators put safety first and this is never an area where humor works. Full stop.”
American outsourced production of the magazine in 2014, but DeFeo said there are internal checks that should have caught the photos before they were distributed to aircraft.
The issue was due to be replaced at the end of March, but American began pulling the issues late last week after becoming aware of the issue. It is no longer available on aircraft, and the story has been removed from the magazine’s website and digital edition.
Capt. Dan Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association, blamed the issue on lack of oversight from American management. He attempted to tie the incident to broader complaints the union has made about implementation of its contract and flight schedules they say stretch pilots too thin, issues that contributed to a vote of no confidence the union held in February.
“Is that really the image of pilots that our company wants to convey?” Allied Pilots Association president Capt. Dan Carey wrote in a message to union members. “The offending photos were on display to our passengers for the entire month of March. The magazines may be gone, but the damage is certainly done.”
DeFeo said American has been reaching out individually to employees who complained and is reviewing oversight processes involving the magazine.
According to the Federal Aviation administration, there were 10 pilot alcohol violations — cases where a pilot’s blood alcohol concentration tested at 0.04 or greater — reported in 2015. That was down from 13 violations in 2014.
Federal regulations also bar pilots from flying if they’ve consumed alcohol within eight hours of flying.
Airlines conduct drug and alcohol tests for a number of reasons, including pre-employment screening, random checks, reasonable suspicion or cause, post-accident and return to duty.
The industry generally conducts 11,000 to 12,000 alcohol tests for pilots each year, the vast majority of which are random checks.