US Airways breaks ads after turbulence clears

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In a recently aired TV spot, a woman just back from two years in Germany approaches a US Airways counter. Recognizing her, the ticket agent says, "It's been a while." The same could be said for the campaign itself.

Originally slated to break in early 1999, the image effort just now gets to portray US Airways as an updated carrier with international scope and attentive employees. The airline put the campaign on hold as it grappled over the last year with problems ranging from maintenance issues to labor problems that threatened to cripple the airline.

But with those hurdles at least partly cleared, the carrier decided to dust off the campaign as it embarks on a turnaround.

"Now that that's behind us, we can focus on winning back the loyalty of our customers," said a spokesman for the airline, which has posted three consecutive quarterly losses.

The campaign, from McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, underwent some tweaking to bring it up to date before airing.

The effort includes national cable and spot TV in major markets US Airways serves, such as New York and Philadelphia. Print and radio are also being used.

McCann also has begun work on a new image campaign, expected to include a fresh tagline, that could break during the first quarter of 2001, if not before.


Brand advertising has taken a backseat recently. The airline spent considerably less on media than other major U.S. carriers -- $18.9 million in 1999, according to Competitive Media Reporting -- and opted to concentrate primarily on retail advertising.

Airline executives said they felt brand advertising didn't make sense during the turmoil. A switch to the Sabre reservations and scheduling system in late 1998 flummoxed some employees, causing delays and cancellations. Pilots retired, or were pressed into military service during the crisis in Kosovo, leading to crew shortages. Maintenance problems led to scheduling snafus.

Earlier this year, US Airways said it would halt all operations if it couldn't reach a deal with its flight attendants union rather than risk sporadic strikes that would make every flight uncertain. The union and management finally reached agreement in late March.

While the bitterness from those negotiations lingers, the dusted-off image campaign could prove more useful now in one of its purposes -- inspiring employees -- than a year ago. Two of the three spots portray employees as instrumental in elevating the airline.

"There really is an internal audience for all airline advertising, particularly US Airways at this point," said Stephen Ohler, senior VP-group creative director at McCann.

In the spot with the woman from Germany, she asks the ticket agent, "So, what's new?" He rattles off a list, including new aircraft, terminals and a Web site ( Voice-over follows with, "Come see all the things our 40,000 people have done to go to new heights for our customers."


In a spot featuring a traveling orchestra, the pun-filled voice-over says, "When people perform together, extraordinary things can happen. Come see how the 40,000 people of US Airways are reorchestrating an airline."

But it may take more than a plug in advertising to ensure employees are onboard.

"It's true they have the contracts in place, the question is, `Is employee morale back?' " said Glenn Engel, an analyst with Goldman Sachs.

The campaign's third spot omits mention of the airline's employees, instead focusing on the airline's service to Europe. US Airways will add several new routes to Europe this year and plans to open a new reservations center in Liverpool, England, in September. US Airways flies to the Continent from Charlotte, N.C., Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and hopes to add Boston.


The spot features a father taking his son to Paris for the first time, in part so he can practice his French. But when father and son get in a Parisian cab and the son tries to ask in French for a lift to the Eiffel Tower, he mistakenly asks the driver to "please jump off" the structure.

"We were trying to make people aware of [US Airways'] scope with the European destinations," Mr. Ohler said. "They used to think of US Airways as something that flew to Rochester."

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