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United, American Fight Negative Perceptions

Struggling airlines are trying to calm angry customers by highlighting environmental and service initiatives.

Among industries sapped by low consumer spending, there's one that's been especially hard-hit, beset by both falling revenue and ongoing customer dissatisfaction: the airlines.



United Airlines,



American Airlines and even budget staple

Southwest Airlines

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are seeing more empty seats, as fewer vacationers and business travelers travel by air.

The news has been just as bad for aviation manufacturers.


(BA) - Get Boeing Company Report

first-quarter earnings fell 50% after sales of commercial and defense aircraft slowed. According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, shipments of small planes in the first quarter fell 41% from a year earlier. The group estimates the industry has shed 15,000 jobs in the past year.

If everything seems stacked against your industry, you have two options: hunker down and wait for a miracle or face the crisis. Instead of downplaying your poor prospects, acknowledge them and then change the subject to something more positive.

Consider the way private-plane manufacturers have defended themselves against public attacks on their products. After corporate jets became much-mocked bit players in the carmaker bailout saga, the market for such high-ticket vehicles dropped off. As stockholder and employee resentment brews, fewer companies can justify such perks for their top execs.

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The General Aviation Manufacturers Association, a trade group for small aviation companies, quickly reframed the debate. The group's chief executive, Pete Bunce, pointed out that the "aviation industry leads the world in innovation and remains one of the few American industries with a positive balance of trade."

Suddenly, private planes became less about out-of-touch, overpaid CEOs and more about creative, profitable entrepreneurship. We may scoff when the head of a bank bordering on bankruptcy requests a Gulfstream jet, but isn't it good for the American economy if foreign business leaders demand them, too?

A consortium of aviation-related groups recently came together to defend their industry's impact on the environment. They released a joint statement highlighting their commitment to fuel conservation and energy efficiency. They also cited data from the Environmental Protection Agency that showed that airplanes are responsible for only 3% of the greenhouse gases produced in the United States.

Sure, such declarations may be mo more than savvy PR, but they help redefine what an industry or company stands for. That's why United started promoting its environmental initiatives on its Web site. The company helps customers calculate the amount of energy they use when they fly and connects them to Sustainable Travel International, which sells carbon offsets.

And while complaints about delayed planes and checked-bag fees continue to tarnish the major airlines, some have tried to boost customer service.

AirTran Holdings



JetBlue Airways

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may be budget carriers, but they were the second and third highest-rated airlines in this year's Airline Quality Rating report (after

Hawaiian Holdings

(HA) - Get Hawaiian Holdings, Inc. Report

, parent of Hawaiian Airlines). AirTran's percentage of lost or mishandled bags is the lowest in the industry. JetBlue recently announced that customers who lose their jobs are eligible for refunds on tickets.

None of these moves can guarantee future profits, but they're good examples of how companies are fighting negative public perception. If you can't defend your company, who will?

Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.