Straighten up and fly right

American Airlines refuses to let a threat from the religious right steer the company off its gay-friendly course

Despite the claims now flowing from the nation's religious right, the one thing that's clear in the wake of last month's meeting at American is that the airline has steered out of its cloudy past and has no plans to turn back.

The thunder of passing jets and the quiet, steady chirping of birds challenge the conversations taking place in an open patio outside American's bustling headquarters on this warm Wednesday afternoon.

It's is April Fools' Day, and two members of American Airlines' Gay and Lesbian Employee Association (GLEAM) are here to speak candidly about their employer.

Robert Crandall declined to speak to the Dallas Observer about American's policies toward gays and lesbians. His spokesperson explained that he "doesn't want to talk about this anymore." But the idea that two GLEAM members were allowed to spend two hours of company time discussing American's policies speaks volumes about the freedom they have gained in the workplace.

Robbin Burr, a GLEAM co-chair, and Tim Kincaid, one of the group's founders, have built successful careers at American Airlines--Kincaid is a five-year employee in the company's corporate communications office. Burr, an 18-year veteran, is the new national sales manager for the gay and lesbian community. They also have gone through the uncomfortable process of coming out in the workplace, and they continue to work on improving gay relations from inside the company and out.

On this unseasonably warm afternoon, Burr and Kincaid recall the trouble American flew into in 1993, when the airline suffered two blows to its image that would ultimately change the course of the company's policies toward gays and lesbians.

The first occurred in April of that year, when a crewmember requested that all blankets and pillows be changed on a D/FW-bound flight that carried a group of gays and lesbians who had participated in a march on Washington. The crewmember's request was leaked to the press, and the incident immediately captured national headlines.

Seven months later, American again made news when a passenger suffering from AIDS hung an intravenous bag over his seat and refused to cover open sores on his face at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. When the passenger refused to leave the plane, he was dragged off screaming and charged with disorderly conduct.

"It was shocking inside and outside the company. We were all horrified to see that," Kincaid recalls. "It was very public, and it was very ugly. It was like strike two, I guess. Lightning struck twice on about the same issue, on the same group."

Shortly after each embarrassment, American issued a public apology, and all employees were issued a corporate statement that laid out the facts of how AIDS is transmitted. Although the incidents faded out of the public memory, Kincaid says, American realized it had a problem.

The task of repairing the damage done to its corporate image began when American adopted a policy banning discrimination against employees based on sexual orientation. Other airlines soon followed suit. Next, American retained two consultants from the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Witeck-Combs Communications.

"They said they would only take the job on the basis that this isn't window dressing, [that] there have to be some genuine changes," says Kincaid. "They became instrumental in advising human resources on the steps to recovery, not only in a marketing and PR sense, but also a sense of employee relations within the company."

As the months rolled on, employees were given AIDS training, while American officials contacted gay and lesbian organizations locally and nationally to ask them what the company could do to improve its image.

The gay and lesbian community began to take notice.
"A lot of travel agents started calling, saying, 'We like what we're seeing there. We'd like to give you our business. We want to reward a company that's at least acknowledging that they made a mistake and they value gay people as customers,'" Kincaid says. "I didn't know what to do with these calls."

With new customers suddenly clamoring for American's business, Kincaid enlisted the help of co-worker Rick Cirillo, who in 1994 began handling gay and lesbian travel arrangements on an experimental basis. That year, American became the second major U.S. airline to join the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, and Cirillo booked $20 million in business.

The numbers impressed the company's top brass, who suddenly saw the wisdom in marketing directly to the gay and lesbian community. The marketing team has since been expanded to five members, and last year it landed a whopping $139 million in sales--more than any other niche group to which the company advertises.

When Burr saw her current position of national sales manager for the gay and lesbian community advertised internally in 1996, she says, she knew it was finally safe to come out at American.

"That's when I knew that the baby steps had really made a difference over time," Burr says.

From his position inside corporate communications, Kincaid assisted the company as it implemented new policies toward gays and lesbians. But at the same time, he remained in the closet, wondering when and how he should come out.

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