A Tale of Two Airline “Image” Campaigns

September 30, 2013

in Travel News Updates, Travel Opinion

  • SumoMe

(This Friday:  “Upcoming Changes in the Air Travel Experience.”)

Two airlines—Ireland’s Ryanair and U.S. “legacy” carrier United Airlines— are trying to improve the image the flying public has of their customer service.

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Irish writer and poet, Oscar Wilde, famously said that

“There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Taking that page out of its countryman Wilde’s book, so to speak, and heeding the adage that “There is no such thing as bad publicity,” Dublin-based budget airline Ryanair has gotten plenty of “ink” with its dirt-cheap-base airfares, plans to charge for use of the “loo” on some flights or remove those “facilities” from its planes, considering “stand-up” seating, and charging an arm, leg, an eye and a tooth for getting a boarding pass at the airport.

According to this story in The New York Times, Ryanair is turning over a new leaf when it comes to dealing with its passengers. The newspaper reported that the airline’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, said that Ryanair “would overhaul its Web site, set up a new team to respond to e-mail and stop fining customers whose carry-on baggage exceeded maximum sizes by a few millimeters.”

In a related Associated Press story (via The Charlotte Observer), O’Leary was quoted as saying that “We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off” and that “We do need to improve and to soften some of the harder edges in our service and in our image.”

O’Leary’s remarks came at its annual meeting when shareholders complained that customer service was impacting sales.

United Ads Fly Back into “The Friendly Skies”

While Ryanair’s O’Leary was saying “Mea Culpa” and moving forward with plans to spiff up the airline’s public persona with improved customer service, United Airlines was flying back in time by resurrecting its 1965-1996 “Fly The Friendly Skies” ad campaign.

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Those who flew United back in the last century will recall that its ads were musically underscored by George Gershwin’s elegant “Rhapsody in Blue.” In this promotional video, United hasn’t brought out a marching band to trumpet its image as the “friendliest” airline to fly. Instead, it’s conducted a symphonic “sit in” on one of its planes.

As this story in The New York Times, points out, United has endured a deluge of customer service problems and complaints since its  merger with Continental Airlines.

The newspaper quoted Tom O’Toole, United’s senior vice president for marketing and loyalty  as saying that

“the [new ad] campaign was aimed primarily at United’s ‘most frequent-traveling, high-yield customers,’ as well as at employees ‘who will enable United to deliver exactly what we’re talking about. It sets an aspirational target for the customer experience United delivers.’”

The Times reported that O’Toole

“said United had opted to return to the [“Fly The Friendly Skies”] tagline because it wanted to ‘re-establish United’s position as the world’s leading’ customer-focused airline.”

 Skift.com says that the United ads will “riff off ‘friendly,’ such as ‘legroom friendly,’ or ‘online friendly’ or ‘shut-eye friendly,’ among others.”

For example, in this video, the airline touts itself as “Wi-Fi friendly.”

But onboard how many of United’s aircraft can you get connected to the world via the Internet?

Alas, the answer is no so many, as this chart from United’s Website shows.

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In fact, in the U.S., you can only be assured of in-flight Wi-Fi aboard planes flying the JFK-LAX and JFX-SFO routes. (The UAL Website can tell you whether Wi-Fi will be available on a flight you are scheduled to take over the next four days.)

Will the “Fly The Friendly Skies” campaign make United’s image soar, or crash and burn? The New York Times noted that:

“Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst for Hudson Crossing, called the campaign ‘a very bold move for United,’ but said the advertising carried ‘the risk of failure: If passengers don’t see United fulfilling its promise of being a “user-friendly” airline, the advertising will be seen as hollow and will backfire.’”

And this was the “take” of Skift.com’s Rafat Ali:

The millennials may not care about the United nostalgia, but old timers will surely remember the slogan. Ultimately, customers may not go for a pining-for-simpler-times slogan, especially if United’s un-friendly problems with technology, customer service, on-time-performance, and the general miserable experience of air travel in these times continue.”

On his Website Frequent Flier.com, Tim Winship—also quoted in The New York Times story—expressed his skepticism about the effectiveness of United’s ad campaign:

“…after the first flood of sentimental remembrance recedes, what we’re left with is today’s United, flying in today’s skies.

“‘The friendly skies.’” It’s lipstick on a pig, and an old pig at that.”

United counters Ali’s and Winship’s negativity with this “Configured for your comfort” video.

But are United’s problems too deep-seated to be solved by painting a glow picture of its jets flying through “friendly” skies? This recent story in The Economist notes that the airline still has unresolved problems with its labor force and its computer system.

Who’s Going to Heaven, Who’s Going to Hell?

Ryanair CEO, Michael O’Leary figuratively went into the public confessional and asked that he and his airline be absolved of its past customer service sins, promising that those travel transgressions would not longer “fly.”

On the other hand, United Airlines Chairman and CEO, Jeff Smisek, has stayed out of the limelight, preferring to allow advertising, rather than his words, to reassure the airlines customers that their travel experience will be heaven-sent.

But, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, actions speak louder than the words of an airline’s CEO or its ads. And if Ryanair or United fail to “fly and deliver,” their customers will surely give them “hell” in return.

In the meantime, their passengers will remain up in the air, debating whether the wonder of air travel is worth the aggravation it involves, much as actor George Clooney was conflicted about his life as a “airborne road warrior” in the movie Up In The Air.

(Tales Told From The Road publisher, Dick Jordan, will fly twice on United during the next two weeks and have a chance to experience, first-hand, whether it’s skies are flight-friendly. Purchasing “Up In The Air” from Amazon.com through links on this page helps Tales Told From The Road continue to bring you a wide range of travel-related stories.)

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