Fear of flying: This isn't the first time airlines experienced a truly bumpy ride
Last week United Airlines announced that it was adding some items to its pre-boarding checklist. In addition to agreeing to wear a mask while on board, you, dear prospective passenger, “must acknowledge” that you “have not had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days” and that you’re not experiencing any of a list of common COVID-19 symptoms now—and you didn’t exhibit said symptoms over the past 14 days.
Click “Accept” and you’re good to go.
Feel reassured? No? Well, neither is Twitter user @KnightsAtari, who last week responded to United’s tweeted announcement about its new “Ready-to-Fly” health “self-assessment” with: “This will be about as effective as the ‘Please confirm you are over 18 to continue’ button on Pornhub.”
Of course, the history of modern commercial air travel has been a bumpy ride not only for passengers but carriers. It seems there’s always some sort of crisis to contend with. Consider the double whammy outlined in a Nov. 5, 1979, Advertising Age front-page story titled “New routes keep airline ads on course.” That winter, carriers faced not only another energy crisis—what we called the “un-flagging march of fuel prices”—but a bewildering morass of service changes (new destinations, new hubs, discontinued routes) in the wake of government deregulation.
How to communicate all that to customers? “While marketing approaches vary,” Ad Age reported at the time, “most airline execs agree that the job cannot be accomplished without advertising.” Keep in mind that earlier in the decade a series of shocking “skyjackings” dominated headlines, and airlines had to work with the government to institute, for the first time, meaningful security protocols—and then had to convince passengers that flying was safe again.
Then consider a story Ad Age published on Sept. 19, 2001: “Southwest First Airline to Start Post 9-11 Advertising.” Two TV spots and newspaper ads, we reported, featured Southwest’s then-president, Colleen Barrett, “pledging our allegiance to America. Nothing will keep our country or Southwest from moving ahead.”
In the summer of 2020, how do airlines move ahead? Very, very carefully. Airlines are not only facing an existential threat, but a truly mind-boggling marketing challenge. Given that public health officials successfully changed the behavior of tens of millions of Americans with months of stay-at-home orders and social-distancing directives, now airlines have to convince them to change their behavior yet again, and in the most counterintuitive way: The pandemic isn’t over yet, but hey, let’s all cram back into hermetically sealed flying petri dishes.
What amount of advertising—and what kind of advertising—will prompt you to click “Accept”?