CNBC looks at the highs, lows of American Airlines

The frequent fliers among us will appreciate a new two-hour documentary airing at 9 tonight on CNBC. And so will anyone who's ever had a hand in building a commercial airliner. Or who's taken a pay cut to help a company meet the bottom line.

"Inside American Airlines: A Week in the Life" chronicles the complicated business of keeping an airline company financially solvent and the behind-the-scenes choreography that gets passengers where they want to go.

Filmed during one week in August, CNBC received access to nearly every department of the airline company, including the cockpit during a transcontinental flight and the operations center as controllers battled thunderstorms and an MD-80 with a hydraulic leak.

Viewers see some of the uglier sides of flying: the crankiest of passengers, as well as how little the cargo that's flying with you is inspected. (And if you ever see cargo labeled "Jim Wilson" you're likely to sigh. That's the airline's way of indicating the cargo are caskets.)

One of the more fascinating insights is a seating chart that explains the price disparity for airline tickets on one specific flight. And why you no longer find nonairline magazines in the seat pocket in front of you.

American Airlines lost two planes and 17 crew members in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The company then lost the trust of labor unions after workers took pay cuts while executives were awarded special pension trust funding and retention bonuses. Former chairman and CEO Donald Carty eventually resigned.

His successor, Gerard Arpey, has managed to restore the faith of his rank-and-file workers while keeping his company hovering above bankruptcy. But it's the little gems of information — the weight of a jetliner at departure versus arrival — that will stay with you. And tonight's portrait might have you thinking twice before ranting the next time your flight is delayed.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or


"Inside American Airlines: A Week in the Life": Two-hour documentary airs at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. tonight, CNBC.