The Irony of Airline Advertising

Monday Author: Susanne Skinner

The total number of people flying commercially is expected to approach four billion this year. That’s a lot of people experiencing the mess that passes for air travel and its perceived benefits. In the past 10 years the quality of air travel has declined to such deplorable levels it’s a wonder planes and people still fly.

The airline industry is rife with misleading advertising. Airline executives seem confused about what customers want. Current advertising campaigns reflect out-of-touch management; people who clearly never travel in a coach seat.

Travelers want to get from point A to point B with a reasonably priced ticket in a seat that does not cut off circulation in their legs. They want to depart and arrive on time—with their luggage. That’s not a lot to ask but airlines struggle to deliver even the most basic services. This epic failure is reflected in the irony of airline advertising.

What the Airlines Sell

In days gone by the airline’s job was to sell you on flying. The challenge was getting people on a plane rather than selling a particular airline. Travelers were skeptical and fearful of flying. Ad agencies went to great lengths to glamorize air travel, including the uniforms of the cabin crew, then called stewardesses.

1970s Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants

In days gone by the airline’s job was to sell you on flying. The challenge was getting people on a plane rather than selling a particular airline. Travelers were skeptical and fearful of flying. Ad agencies went to great lengths to glamorize air travel, including the uniforms of the cabin crew, then called stewardesses.       1

Times have changed. That genre of advertising no longer makes business sense because the public is on board, literally, when it comes to air travel.

Ads today play up features and benefits, bragging about routes, seats, and amenities Jennifer Aniston expects, elevating the brand while knowing most of us don’t travel on anything but a coach-class ticket.

Airlines enlist famous names to tout their perks; United uses Matt Damon and Delta uses Donald Sutherland. American opts for no famous voice-overs. Their newest ad hopes to convince you with this video, clearly placing the blame for unhappy travel on you!

Ads today play up features and benefits, bragging about routes, seats, and amenities Jennifer Aniston expects, elevating the brand while knowing most of us don’t travel on anything but a coach-class ticket.

What they sell: UAE first-class passenger

The Justice Department does investigate and fine airlines, especially after a series of mergers approved by them put much of the competition out of the running. Carriers are fined large sums for deceptive advertising, yet all continue to do it.  These fines are paltry sums. They pay them and find new ways to deceive the public.

Lies They Tell You

Airlines work from a script designed to tell you what you want to hear.  It’s not the truth, and they know how to spin it.  Here are the top five:

  • Weather Delay

Blaming the weather for your delay or cancellation is the airline’s most common excuse and passenger complaint. If a flight is called off because of severe weather the airline’s contract lets them off the hook. A delay caused by Mother Nature means the carrier is not obligated to spend thousands of dollars in hotel and meal expenses and you sleep in the chair with a $5 bag of Cheetos.

  • Awards Programs

The cost of these programs is baked into your ticket so it pays to sign up. All airlines have award seats at regular redemption levels, but they’re only available when an airline projects the seat will fly empty. Blackout dates have been replaced by tiered rewards and there are many restrictions. Peak periods—any day that’s not a Wednesday—require more points.   

The Justice Department does investigate and fine airlines, especially after a series of mergers approved by them put much of the competition out of the running. Carriers are fined large sums for deceptive advertising, yet all continue to do it. These fines are paltry sums. They pay them and find new ways to deceive the public.

What we buy: sleeping in coach seats

You get points two ways: by signing up with the airline itself or by signing up for a credit card that offers reward miles. Some credit cards work on any airline, others are for specific airlines. The most costly way to use points is redeeming them on the same airline because their preference is for paying customers. Redeem them on partner airlines where you will have more flexibility. Only full-fare tickets can be upgraded with points. 

  • Lowest Fares

Air fare can only be hiked so much before people reduce the number of trips they take. Reduced flights, grounded planes and reduction in services all impact air travel. Airlines have stripped away every benefit from the ticket you purchase so it includes nothing but the seat you sit in—and it’s the worst seat on the plane. Want a better one? Get out your wallet.

More leg room, exit rows, and seats close to the front are premium seating. The ability to check or even carry a bag, make a change, or select a seat all comes with a fee. Expecting a meal? Credit card sales only and it’s a $10 sandwich.

A 1996 airline ticket has nothing in common with a 2016 ticket. U.S. airlines are estimated to bank an estimated $80 billion in ancillary fees for things that used to be included in the cost of your ticket. Baggage feels alone account for 20 percent of that revenue. Flying is not what it used to be.

  • You’ll Make your Connection

They know you won’t but they are required to say you will. Experienced travelers know exactly how long it takes to get from one of end of any large airport to the other when changing planes. Frequent fliers like me have learned to allow plenty of time between connecting flights and take direct flights whenever possible. The legal connection time is 45 minutes, but you will need at least 90 minutes for you and your checked bags to make the change.

  • The Myth of Customer Service

Most airlines have relocated customer service to an off-shore call center. They are neither customer nor serviced oriented, working from a script designed to make you hang up in frustration. You get slightly better service from a US call center.Most airlines have relocated customer service to an off-shore call center. They are neither customer nor serviced oriented, working from a script designed to make you hang up in frustration. You get slightly better service from a US call center.

Non-US carriers like Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Emirates rank highest for customer service. Holding the worst position in the US is Spirit Airlines (if you’ve flown them you know they earned it) and my favorite Jet Blue holds the top spot.

Air travel is not likely to improve in costs, services or advertising. Flyer Beware.

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2 thoughts on “The Irony of Airline Advertising

  1. Having been a 1k flyer with United for many years I can relate to much of what has been said here. I still have over 250k miles in my account today with 780,000 lifetime miles from my days in high tech working in both APAC and EMEA regions more than I wish to recall. The glory days are gone for sure as is the notion of any romance associated with flying commercially today. I’m appalled at the current economy seating arrangements with most airlines as I am with baggage fees! I must say though that with the new management at United/Continental this year, my experiences have improved quite a bit with remodeled interiors, and the fact that United upgraded my status to Premier Silver for no apparent reason at all for a full year – this means priority seating and non baggage fees for now. Yippee!

  2. Suze: Having spent far too many hours in my career on airplanes and watching the experience of air travel deteriorate over time, I agree completely with your opinion about the state of affairs. Airline management knows exactly what passengers want — they just find it more profitable not to provide it. If you’re sitting in coach with the goats and the chickens, if your knees are bumping into your chin, if your butt is sore from the hard seats, if you don’t want to sit in the middle of the middle, then you have real incentive to break out your wallet and pay for a micro-upgrade. During the recession airline management imposed these fees to stay in the black and competition has not forced them to roll the fees back now that the economy has gotten better. Just as airline management reduced the number of flights to ensure that every plane was packed tight, they make the experience of flying coach as awful as possible just so we’ll pay more to obtain some measure of comfort. Competition from overseas airlines will help but what we really need in this country is high-speed rail, like the TGV we took from Bordeaux to Paris last year. Now that would be real competition!

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