NEW YORK — The big airline maintenance battle of 1987 is under way.
For now, the battleground seems to be television, and the weapon--advertising.
The latest haggling involves a Continental Airlines commercial boasting that its mechanics help maintain the planes of other airlines. United Airlines and American Airlines are both demanding that the ad be yanked off television.
The ad boasts that many other carriers have contracted to have Continental do maintenance work on their planes. It boasts of its own maintenance standards. It shows a Continental maintenance crew changing a tire on an American 727.
"This year 24 major airlines have contracted with us to help them do their maintenance: United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Federal Express--even American. It's a reputation we're proud of, and you can see why." The advertisement, which began airing on some network-owned stations earlier this month, then shows an American aircraft.
'Piggybacking on American'
The airlines mentioned in the ad have cried foul.
"This is what is called bootstrapping," said Stephen McGregor, an American spokesman. "This is an attempt by Continental to elevate itself by piggybacking on American's superior reputation."
United's advertising agency, Leo Burnett Co., said in its letters to the networks that "Continental grossly misrepresents the airplane maintenance which Continental renders to United and other airlines." The agency adds that Continental performs only "minor repairs" for United at four airports.
"The commercial said they have hired us to help them do their maintenance," said James O'Donnell, a Continental vice president, "because of our reputation for performance and safety and that is true. We are not making a quantitative argument. What we say is that we have entered into an agreement to maintain their aircraft. But whether we maintain the planes once or a thousand times, they have represented to the Federal Aviation Administration and to their customers that our standards are at least as high as theirs are."
McGregor said Continental even prepared the ad in an "underhanded" manner. He said Continental "misrepresented the way it got the pictures of the American plane." Continental photographers, he said, went to the Houston airport where an American plane and a Continental plane were parked next to each other. "The Continental folks asked that we move the ground equipment from our plane so they could take pictures of it. Instead they took films of our plane."
American says the ad leaves the impression that Continental does a substantial amount of maintenance for American when the opposite is true. In fact, American says Continental does maintenance for American at only six airports.
A contract at El Paso, one of the six, expires at the end of November and will not be renewed. The cancellation of the contract has nothing to do with the current controversy, American said. It is just that Continental's rates are too high and American believes that it can save money by stationing its own crews in El Paso.
American says it does much more maintenance for Continental than Continental does for it.
American said that for 1987 through September Continental did only 1,261.5 man-hours of work for American. That is two one-hundredths of 1% of all the maintenance done on its planes, according to American.
For all 1986, American performed 83,308 man-hours of maintenance on Continental planes versus the 3,300 Continental performed on American planes.
Both American and United say Continental actually does no major maintenance on their planes. "They might change a tire," said Dan Sheehy, a United spokesman, "or repair a tail light."
The United spokesman said that last year United performed $50-million worth of maintenance on Continental 747s, 727s and 737s while Continental has done a few thousand hours of work on United planes. "We just want to set the record straight," said Sheehy, "We want the travelers to be given honest information."
Delta Air Lines said it had taken no action as yet. "It took us a while to get a copy of the ad," spokesman William Berry said. "And we are studying what our action will be. It does, however, misrepresent the extent of the maintenance relationship we have with Continental."
A spokesman for NBC said the complaints are in the "challenge process" and that "the ball is in Continental's court now. They have to come up with an answer to the complaint."
A CBS spokesman said such complaints are "by no means unusual." He said Continental will be given a chance to respond and American will be given a chance to repond to that. An ABC spokesman said local stations were handling the complaints.