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American Airlines Marketing V.P. Leaves Amid Turmoil

Fernand Fernandez, late of American Airlines.
Fernand Fernandez, late of American Airlines.
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A key marketing executive of American Airlines is leaving “to spend time with his family, according to a copy of his resignation obtained by the Chicago Business Journal,” a move made in the aftermath of several high-profile missteps. Those include a messy roll-out of uniforms that employees lambasted as unwearable and the recent photo in the airline's magazine that angered unions because it depicted pilots in uniform serving booze.

"I only get one chance at being the father and husband my family deserves," Fernand Fernandez said.

The first reasonable question is, does this have anything to do with a recent incident that made national news in which a fight attendant got into an altercation with a stroller-pushing mother and other passengers? Although he was responsible for corporate monitoring of flight-academy training, making him tangentially involved in the incident, there is a long litany of missteps for which Fernandez is responsible that makes his departure seem more likely to be a forced exit that was long in the making.

American certainly doesn't want to indicate that he left under duress. “Fern’s decision to depart American was entirely his own and has absolutely nothing to do with our uniforms or any other matter," says American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller, via email. "We’re grateful for his many contributions and we wish him the very best in his next chapter.”

Still, a letter to employee indicates that Fernandez has no other job waiting, as was the case when other American executives recently left the company to join United. "He plans to take the summer off with his family before pursuing other opportunities," wrote Kurt Stache, American’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Loyalty and Sales, to employees after his departure.

As the vice president for global marketing, Fernandez was responsible for everything onboard, including the magazine and the new uniform project. Both experienced serious headwinds and negative attention. His Linked In profile hints at the broad mandate under his care: “Responsible for developing and executing a defined marketing and communications strategy aligned to American’s vision and strategy. In addition, provide executive leadership and management of the company’s marketing activities worldwide, on-board product, food & beverage, customer experience strategy and lounge network.”

Fernandez’s shop was responsible for slogans, signs, a much ballyhooed redesign of airport lounges and on-board amenities. Some of the largest projects required the marketing team pull the American Airlines and US Airways teams together after the two merged. One critical and very public aspect of the merger is having the same uniform, instead of two.

The program, run by Fernandez’s marketing team, languished, and when the airline revealed its designs, employees hated them. The flight attendant’s union and others chronicled problems during testing, including itchiness, headaches and hives. These complaints came with photos and cemented a wholesale revolt against the uniforms.

Fernandez manned the frontlines of the pushback against the backlash, but found himself embarrassed by a change of direction. As chronicled by the Dallas Business Journal, he was insisting the uniforms were fully tested and ready to go just days before the airline announced more tests.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which took the lead in the uniform fight, did not return multiple requests for comment.

Another unlikely source of employee angst is American Way, American's magazine. In 2014, Fernandez stopped publishing American Way in house, transitioning the magazine's editorial operations to INK Global. The publishers stumbled out of the gate by moving their operations from Dallas, amid assurances to the airline that they would operate locally, and faced national media scrutiny when the company fired an employee after she revealed a breast cancer diagnosis.

That may have stung, but in early April the magazine’s new team caused a self-inflicted wound to the relationship with the pilots' union in March. The magazine ran a story detailing the effort behind a Sydney-based mobile bar service that (for some reason) replicates the experience of getting a drink from an airline bar cart. The trouble came when the photo showed the bartenders in pilot's uniforms serving instead of flight attendants, making them look like they were drunk. The airline apologized but the union remained offended.

Allied Pilots Association President Dan Carey said the airline’s apology wasn't good enough. "Most of you have probably seen the apology that management posted on Thursday noting that the magazine would be gone from our airplanes by today, to be replaced by the April edition," Carey said. "Yes, 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. Management's apology is too little, too late."

This drama comes at a bad time, when the pilots at American are angry that contracts signed by Delta and Southwest airlines have better compensation than the increases they received. Insulting pilots is bad form for the magazine, but it’s especially damaging if it’s being used to force more salary negotiations.

The APA refused to comment, saying they don't speak about personnel changes.

For these reasons, the statement that Fernandez is leaving “to spend time with his family” seems convenient language for a push out to mollify unions and employees.

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