LEADING NATIONAL ADVERTISERS: SKIES REALLY FRIENDLIER FOR AMERICA'S AIRLINES: SOUTHWEST QUIETLY BECOMES TOP-SPENDING AIR CARRIER

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Delta air Lines this year eased its brutal cost-reduction plan, named a new ad agency and turned to trans-Atlantic business-class service for a new marketing thrust.

The airline's move toward other shores is hardly an isolated case among major carriers, which, until more recent rosy economic times, were plagued by discount carriers, soaring costs and a mature domestic market yielding low growth.

But now that good times have returned, Delta and other major carriers have turned their gaze abroad and are shaking off their battered images-looking to new ad agencies for help. Plus, they're starting to spend more on advertising.

MERGERS SOUGHT

American Airlines has been trying to merge services with British Airways, although the EC has stalled the move on antitrust grounds. Northwest Airlines and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines have struck an alliance, as has United Airlines and carriers such as Thai Airways and Lufthansa German Airlines.

Delta, itself, has linked with Swissair, Austrian Airlines and Sabena Belgian World Airlines.

After dumping 51-year-agency BBDO South, Atlanta, for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York, Delta came back with its estimated $40 million theme, "On top of the world," reminiscent of Saatchi's work for British Airways.

NEW DELTA PAINT

Delta unveiled an updated paint scheme for its livery and followed the lead of international carriers Air France and British Airways in introducing new business-class offerings, with new seats and meals.

Other airlines have dismissed agencies. Continental Airlines recently switched to N.W. Ayer & Partners, New York, from Richards Group, Dallas. United ditched Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, its agency of 31 years, for Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, and Y&R Advertising, New York. America West Airlines' account currently is in review.

United's new $70 million campaign has a confessional bent, acknowledging the difficulties of traveling-delays, bad food, etc.-and that the airline is trying to do better. The campaign was built on a Cambridge Group study that found honesty to be the best policy in reaching hardened travelers.

COMMODITY TRAVEL

As the carriers focus overseas, domestic-passenger service seems headed for more commodity-like treatment-unless United's soul-bearing effects change.

Travelers continue to be lured by the no-frills carrier Southwest Airlines, which has expanded by keeping costs down. Southwest has become the No. 1 airline media spender.

But shaking Southwest can't be done by going international. Even that airline is experimenting with overseas' ties, connecting with Icelandair for flights to

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