AirTran flies in the face of big-time carriers

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AirTran Airways calls on two indelible images of the 20th century to portray itself as a price revolutionary against the establishment airlines in a campaign that breaks Independence Day.

One spot in the estimated $8 million effort features a man in a business suit attempting to block the path of a plane, much like the Chinese dissident who stood in front of a tank during the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. The message: AirTran stands up to the major airlines to offer affordable fares.

"We're the David vs. Goliath," said Tad Hutcheson, the airline's director of marketing.

The second spot in the campaign features a couple kissing in a manner reminiscent of Alfred Eisenstaedt's famous photo of a returning sailor and nurse smooching in Times Square in celebration of victory in World War II. AirTran wants viewers to believe the war against high airfares also is over.

NEW THEME ARRIVES

The campaign from Cramer-Krasselt, Chicago, brings a new tagline -- "Your airline has arrived" -- replacing the 3-year-old "It's something else," which had become tired.

The spot TV effort launches July 4 in the Atlanta market and may expand to six to eight other high-traffic AirTran destinations such as Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Print, radio and outdoor also are part of the campaign. Atlanta is AirTran's hub and 93% of its flights are routed through Hartsfield International Airport.

Before the new campaign begins, AirTran will take an established effort to a new market. On May 15, AirTran will begin airing its much-talked-about spots promoting its new Boeing 717 planes in Minneapolis, where it debuts service in June. As a market dominated by Northwest Airlines, Minneapolis could prove fertile ground for AirTran's new us-against-the-establishment positioning.

ACTION-ADVENTURE SPOTS

The Boeing 717 spots mimic the feel of an action-adventure movie as they promotes the airline's fleet overhaul. Fifty Boeing 717s will be added by 2003 (10 are already flying). In one ad Air Force-like personnel are confounded by the sudden, pervasive blips on a radar screen representing the new planes.

AirTran's Boeing 717 spots caused a stir in the four markets where they ran: Newport News, Va.; Chicago; New York; and especially Atlanta. Since the spots had a Hollywood feel, AirTran ran them on movie screens there and Mr. Hutcheson, sitting in theaters, often would hear people say excitedly, "I want to see that film," before realizing it was an ad for the airline.

AirTran officials and industry observers said they believe the new 717s will help the airline continue to distance itself in consumers' minds from the much-publicized 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades that killed everyone aboard. ValuJet took the AirTran name in the fall of 1997.

"I think the further they get with the new fleet, people will continue to put the ValuJet crash out of their minds," said Brian Simpson, VP at airline consultancy the Boyd Group.

FIVE PROFITABLE QUARTERS

Since its relaunch, the airline has added business class, assigned seats, a frequent-flier program and an Internet site plus the new planes. After some initial financial struggles, the airline has posted five straight profitable quarters.

Though the AirTran name helps create space from the ValuJet fiasco, the name is not problem-free. It sometimes is confused with another carrier, American Trans Air, or ATA. Last month, The Washington Post mistakenly switched placement of the two airlines' ads, Mr. Hutcheson said.

And the name takes away from the airline's essence, said Barbara Beyer, president of consultancy AvMark. "ValuJet is such a better name in terms of describing the carrier," she said. "What's AirTran? Big deal. Sounds like Amtrak."

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