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What Airlines Can Learn From Unintentional Heroes

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One never knows where the path called life will lead, witnessed Chesley Sullenberger, who I wrote about earlier this week. One day he's an anonymous airline pilot worried about his kids and his investments, the next, he's landing a crippled USAirways airplane in the Hudson and becoming an international icon of discipline and leadership. Three years later, the mucho macho airline captain's 15 minutes of fame are far from over. Sully's well into promotion of book No. 2, Making a Difference, which I suspect will be snapped up like free first class upgrades based on the length of the line at his book signing in New York on Monday.

But will another airline-created celebrity fare as well? Do you remember Dave Carroll, the Canadian singer-songwriter whose guitar was crippled by United Airlines? His hilarious music video "United Breaks Guitars" became an international sensation on You Tube.

Carroll wrote three music videos about the event and he has even more to say in his new book, United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Media, which has just been published.

I can't keep up with the books I need to read since I am thoroughly caught up reading the excellent China's Wings by Gregory Crouch (thanks, Cliff Jenks, for the recommendation). So with the predicate that I haven't read Carroll's book yet, let me say that he and Sully aren't too different in the way they are elevating a personal experience to something larger than themselves.

How successful either will be in actually achieving lofty goals remains to be seen. But I am skeptical that Carroll's book has done what one jacket review claims, that he has "taught corporate America how to treat people better." I'd like to see some evidence of that.

To the contrary, last week, after reporting for the New York Times about new challenges in air travel based on the increasing size of air travelers, I received a call from a reader making it clear that some airlines remain tone-deaf to passenger issues despite Dave Carroll's catchy You Tube songs.

Dr. Alan Langer was traveling from Chicago to Denver last month on American Airlines Flight 3766. He was recovering from foot surgery that required him to get wheelchair assistance at the airport. On board the regional jet, he was seated on the aisle next to a passenger who was so large, "his arms came over the armrest and his right leg was so far over it went beyond the seat pocket where the safety instructions are located. The result was I could not sit facing directly forward with my feet forward," Dr. Langer wrote in a complaint to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The 6-foot-1 Dr. Langer says when he asked the flight attendant how he was to make the flight since his seat was not fully available to him, he was told to put his legs into the aisle and that is exactly how he made the two and a half hour flight. Not unexpectedly, the flight attendant tripped over him, causing pain to his already injured foot, according to the FAA complaint.

American, not an airline known for its customer service, offered a $100 flight credit to Dr. Langer who says that's not the point. And he's right. How does a company wind up with employees who are either not free to accommodate or not conscious of the need to accommodate passengers who have an obvious medical issue? Where the resolution to a problem includes telling a passenger to suck it up and put their feet in the aisle, to not only create a problem for the specific passenger but potentially cause injuries to everyone else on the flight?

Perhaps the answer to the question of how large companies can treat customers as if they were more than small nuisances can be found in Dave Carroll's book. And perhaps the interviews with various leaders interviewed by Sully will direct airline executives to find their higher purpose and then communicate it down to the employees they are supposed to be leading. These are worthy goals. A round of applause and healthy book sales to the men whose very different starting points have led them try and achieve them.