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TLC FOR DOA TAKES USAIR TO HIGHER PLANE FREQUENT FLIER EFFORT LURES UNDERTAKERS

By Published on .

In the wake of mounting industry losses, USAir is digging up new business with a frequent flier program aimed at funeral directors.

The USAir TLC Award Program is part of the carrier's recent marketing effort to inspire the roughly 45,000 licensed funeral directors nationwide to select the airline for shipping the dearly departed to their final destinations. It's a big and profitable business, and one that requires a certain delicacy in choice of words-which hasn't prevented the airline from titling its brochure "Introducing a Higher Level of Service."

An insider at Bethesda, Md.-based Earle Palmer Brown, USAir's ad agency, confided that during the first month on the project, the team sat around cracking jokes.

USAir indeed expects to meet stiff competition head-on with the frequent funeral flier awards program in a bid to become a major player in this up and coming market. No other airline has a similar offer. Northwest Airlines tried it in the late 1980s but gave up after awarding about 10 tickets, said a Northwest spokesman.

The fact that USAir is resurrecting a concept that once died doesn't bother company executives.

"We have seen incremental business from first out of the box-no pun intended," said May Strite, analyst for USAir cargo sales.

USAir, in fact, makes no bones about employing established marketing techniques to boost shipping human remains, a term usually shortened to H.R. Initials actually work well in

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this specialty-hence USAir's decision to promote its H.R. service under the TLC brand name.

"TLC is an understood phrase for tender loving care without having to say it," said Trudy Howland, the airline's manager of advertising and sales promotion. She likens the use of TLC to the airline's same-day delivery service called PDQ.

Names like Gabriel's Hand and Preferred Care were ditched because they could be mistaken for homeless shelters and the like.

Of course, deciding on TLC was just the beginning of the marketing effort. Together, airline and ad agency executives decided to create an entire package, using trade ads, direct marketing and the frequent flier program for funeral directors because they usually make the airline selection.

The color brochure with ethereal cloud motif explains how specially trained reservations agents handle a variety of requests. Special services are outlined along with the carrier's new 800-number dedicated to the program.

The airline has simplified pricing so cost is based on destination, not weight. However, "Human remains, not cremated, weighing less than 80 pounds are always charged a flat rate of $68. And one spray of flowers can accompany each casket free of charge," according to the brochure.

After just 30 shipments, presumably of any weight, a funeral director gets one free trip within the U.S. or Canada.

"USAir's program almost makes dying worthwhile," said James O'Donnell, chairman of Houston-based consultancy Seabrook Marketing. "I'm only sorry that it's been more than a few years since I could qualify for the 80 pounds or less price break. This is the ultimate in niche marketing and a whole new way to get your ashes hauled."

Whether the undertaking continues to attract more shipments remains to be seen. Service and flight schedules still appear to be the deciding factors in choosing an airline. Delta Air Lines, apparently the leading carrier in the H.R. market, won't match USAir's frequent dier awards program.

"We prefer to market our product based on integrity and quality of our service through our Delta Cares program," sniffed Craig Drum, Delta manager of national accounts-cargo marketing.

The National Funeral Directors Association in Milwaukee had a similar reaction.

"The most important concern of funeral directors is providing the best quality service to the families they serve," said Andrea Waas, the association's public relations coordinator. "Most consumers select a funeral home by referral or by previous knowledge and experience. Therefore, funeral directors choose air carriers that meet their client families' needs the best."

One funeral director in the Northeast didn't see a conflict between providing quality service and choosing an airline to get a free ticket. "Hey, everyone likes to fly for free," he offered.

James P. Nolan Jr. of the Nolan & Taylor-Howe Funeral Home in Northport, N.Y., said he would choose USAir but it happened to be his airline of choice before starting the awards program. Still, he's not bothered by a program that gives perks to funeral directors.

"It's only an extra plus," he said of the awards program. "I don't see anything negative about the program unless funeral directors go out of their way to book a flight through Alaska to get the awards."M

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12.10Heavenly service? Well, the passengers aren't complaining much. Advertising and a membership card are part of the USAir TLC Award Program, aimed at funeral directors who need to ship human remains.

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