Airlines, U.S.

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Interest in commercial aviation burgeoned following World War I. Charles Lindbergh became the "poster child" for passenger air service after his May 1927 flight across the Atlantic Ocean to France, and he went on to help start what would become Trans World Airlines.

While "Lindy" was piloting the Spirit of St. Louis, Juan Trippe, another U.S. aviation pioneer, was expanding international air routes. In 1927, Mr. Trippe formed Pan American Airways, merging his Aviation Corp. of America with several rival carriers he had acquired. Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn handled advertising for Pan American, which was flying to Costa Rica and Panama by February 1929. In 1935, it expanded to offer trans-Pacific service, and followed up in 1939 with service to Europe, then Egypt in 1941 and India in 1942.

In 1930, executives at Boeing Air Transport hired stewardesses to care for passengers on the airline's early, often turbulent flights. In ads, Boeing—which merged with other carriers to form United Airlines a year later—boosted its safety image by touting the fact that it recruited nurses as cabin attendants.

American Airlines took safety and security one step further in 1937, when it began to run ads that talked openly of passengers' fear of flying and addressed safety issues to dissuade them of those fears. One ad featured an open letter from American Airlines President C.R. Smith under the banner headline "Why dodge this question: Afraid to fly?"

But safety and the speed advantage of air travel were not the only themes early airlines found effective. Carriers also creatively promoted other fringe benefits associated with flying. During Prohibition, for instance, posters for some airlines showcased flights to the Caribbean, where alcohol was both legal and plentiful.

After World War II

During World War II, planes were diverted from civilian to military use and airline employees dedicated to the war effort, which limited the airlines' ability to offer passenger service. But with the end of the war, carriers once again turned to advertising and began to focus on fares. Americans' interest in air travel had grown, but flying remained prohibitively expensive for the middle class. One creative solution came from Pan American, which introduced a marketing program called "Fly now, pay later" that allowed passengers to arrange installment loans to finance air travel.

As commercial aviation became more sophisticated, advertising slogans changed as well. By the mid-1940s, Continental Airlines, which had used the tagline "Fly the old Santa Fe Trail" just two years earlier, moved on to "The blue skyway." With the 1958 introduction of jet service, Continental switched to "First in the West with jet power flights," developed by J. Walter Thompson Co. By the mid-1960s, Continental had again changed its agency, its strategy and its slogan to focus on its history, profitability and level of service. Needham, Harper & Steers weighed in with taglines such as "The airline that pride built" and "See the difference that pride makes."

Onboard amenities also moved into the foreground of advertising. In 1940, TWA offered the first in-flight audio entertainment, providing individual receivers to passengers so they could listen to radio programs. In 1957, TWA became the first airline to serve freshly brewed coffee on its flights. And in 1970, it pioneered no-smoking sections aboard all its flights as well as business-class ambassador service, with the tag, "A whole new way to fly." Foote, Cone & Belding handled TWA advertising from 1956 until 1968, when Wells, Rich, Greene, New York, won the account. (FCB had created the well-known "Up, up and away" slogan for TWA.)

Perhaps the most successful marketing jingle in airline advertising history debuted in 1965 when United and Leo Burnett Co. introduced "The Friendly Skies." Two years later, the airline launched a "Take me along" promotion to entice traveling businessmen to take their wives with them on business trips. In 1969, "Come fly with me" made its first appearance as part of United's "Friendly Skies" campaign. And, when in the mid-1990s employees took a 55% ownership stake in the company, the new ownership structure became the platform for all United marketing efforts. The tagline was tweaked only slightly ("Come fly our friendly skies"), and employees sported buttons with sayings such as "Welcome to my airline" and "Ask me. I'm the owner."

Deregulation and advertising

Deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 changed the landscape for both airlines and the industry's advertising. It brought a flurry of upstart competitors while allowing airlines to freely enter and exit markets, which was reflected in new waves of advertising.

Southwest Airlines, launched in 1971 as a regional carrier in Texas, ratcheted up the competition for innovative marketing. In 1973, the carrier tried to woo passengers by cutting its fare from San Antonio to Dallas in half—to $13. Rival Braniff retaliated by reducing its fare from Dallas to Houston. Southwest responded via the Bloom Agency, with a spread ad in the Dallas and Houston newspapers that read, "Nobody's going to shoot Southwest Airlines out of the sky for a lousy $13." The ad went on to offer passengers the option of the $13 fare or paying a full-fare $26 and getting a free fifth of liquor.

Deregulation also provided Southwest with the opportunity to fly outside Texas.With help from its two subsequent agencies—Austin, Texas-based GSD&M and Cramer-Krasselt, Chicago—it continued to use its positioning as "the low fare airline" to introduce itself in marketing to a wider audience.

The established airlines were threatened by upstarts such as Southwest and responded by cutting their marketing. Troubled TWA, for instance, under the control of Carl Icahn in the late 1980s, sought to reduce costs by negotiating more favorable terms with its agency, Young & Rubicam, but ended up losing its shop whenY&R resigned the account after TWA suggested Y&R cut its fee of $6 million by 33%.

By the 1990s, TWA, then free from Mr. Icahn's control, opted to distance itself from the low-price segment. New management undertook a $10 million, eight-week ad campaign in early 1993 that focused on passenger comfort. In one TV spot, from Backer Spielvogel Bates Worldwide, New York, the camera focused on the knees of passengers seated on the carrier's planes to illustrate their greater legroom. American Airlines' domestic agency, Temerlin McClain, Irving, Texas, responded with ads that focused on that carrier's amenities.

Seven years later, TWA continued to try to upgrade its image through ads detailing plans to replace its fleet of planes. A $2 million TV, print and radio campaign from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, St. Louis, was aimed at business travelers, a group that flew more frequently than leisure travelers and paid more for seats.

Frequent fliers

As early as 1981, American Airlines designed a marketing strategy aimed at the profitable business-class passenger: the frequent-flier program. American's strategy of rewarding loyal customers actually dated to 1936 when, as part of a promotion tied to the introduction of the DC-3 aircraft, the carrier provided passengers with membership in an "admiral's club."

The 1981 frequent-flier program was far more sophisticated, in part thanks to the advent of computers and some insightful thinking by Doyle Dane Bernbach, American's agency at the time. DDB suggested that American come up with a "loyalty fare" for its best customers, which represented the genesis of American's AAdvantage program. AAdvantage had the dual benefits of making customers feel special while enabling American to track individual members and their travel patterns. (United Airlines followed up with its own frequent-flier program 11 days later.)

Frequent-flier programs are now among the more effective industrywide marketing programs, and are equally popular with leisure and business travelers; even corporations outside the travel industry buy miles from the airlines to use as customer loyalty incentives. The programs have greatly enhanced the airlines' ability to target their marketing to increasingly select groups of customers.

Competition over fares intensifies

As airlines began to emphasize fares, increasingly sophisticated ad technologies allowed the carriers to respond more quickly to price-cutting by rivals. In 1992, when American Airlines launched its Value Plan low-fare initiative, United was able to cut American's ad lead to fewer than 24 hours. Other airlines then began to advertise even lower fares, and American ultimately was forced to again reduce its already discounted fares. Leisure travelers took to the skies as never before, and the airlines found themselves bloodied by the fare war and facing a public they had conditioned to look for ads announcing a better deal on ticket prices.

In 1996, United abandoned its "Friendly skies" slogan and divided its account between Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, which handled the domestic business, and Young & Rubicam's Y&R Advertising, New York, which handled international advertising and media buying duties. (The arrangement was similar to one already in place at American Airlines, where Temerlin McClain handled domestic ads and DDB Needham Worldwide, New York, had international responsibilities.)

United's new domestic campaign centered on a $1.5 million survey that the airline had commissioned to find out what passengers thought about traveling. The resulting "Rising" campaign aired to an updated version of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," United's longtime musical theme. The same tagline was used outside the U.S. in advertising from Y&R, but the campaign failed to win passengers, and United dropped it in fall 1999.

Consolidation and change

At the end of 2000, United reversed its earlier strategy and consolidated its $80 million-to-$100 million global account at Fallon, claiming it was seeking to create a more consistent voice worldwide and reduce its annual spending on advertising by $6 million.

United was not the only airline in search of a big change as the end of the century neared. In 1998, Delta scrapped Saatchi & Saatchi's "On Top of the World" campaign and put its $100 million global account up for review. Saatchi had only had the account for a year, winning it from BBDO South, Atlanta, Delta's agency for 51 years. In 1999, the account moved to Burnett.

In 1998, Continental tried out a new strategy, launching its "Work Hard. Fly Right" campaign, which both acknowledged the drudgery involved in flying and highlighted the industry's problems of promising passengers much while delivering little.

International marketing also took on new importance beginning in the mid-1990s. When airlines were not trying to one-up their competitors, they were banding together and marketing alongside each other. Code-sharing agreements between U.S. and foreign carriers, such as the Star Alliance and Oneworld, were marketed to tout the benefits of seamless worldwide air travel while still preserving each airline's own brand identity.

Marketing programs that steer travelers first to the Internet and then to specific airlines are also expected to continue to grow in importance. Orbitz, an airline ticketing service founded by five airlines, made a splashy debut in spring 2001 debut via TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, which had a $75 million advertising and marketing budget to support it.

September 11

The attacks by terrorists on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept.11, 2001, in which commercial aircraft from American and United became in effect flying bombs, radically altered the creative direction of airline advertising. After a general hiatus following the attacks, the airlines began to return to advertising with messages no longer simply concerned with fares and aircraft features. Patriotism and safety became watchwords in advertising from air carriers that had seen passenger loads plummet in the aftermath of the attacks, in some cases by as much as 50%.

Southwest, the first airline to run TV spots after the incidents, abandoned its trademark humor in favor of a serious commercial from GSD&M in which its president spoke of the tenacity of Southwest and the nation. In mid-October, United resumed its TV efforts with a series of b&w commercials from Fallon in which employees discussed their feelings about the company, the country and the American spirit. Low-fare ads began to reappear, this time tied to the theme of getting America moving again; they, too, were more sober.

In the wake of Sept. 11, budget carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue thrived, to the point where United and Delta tried to emulate their success by rolling out their own low-cost airlines, Ted and Song, respectively.

Song tried some innovative marketing techniques from its agency, Kirschenbaum Bond & Partners, and public relations firm Dan Klores Communications. The spinoff opened stores in New York and Boston, and even became the official sponsor of New York's trendy Meatpacking District. Moreover, its flight attendant uniforms were designed by Kate Spade, and some of its meals were created by notable chefs.

Still, in 2004, JetBlue lead the industry with a load factor of 85.5%; another discount carrier, Spirit, was No.2 with 84%, according to Aviation Daily. American Airlines led the industry in market share with 18% of all passengers, followed by United (16.3%), Delta (14.1%) and Northwest (10.1%). Southwest was the leading low-cost carrier with 7.3% of market share, while JetBlue was at 1.92%.

At the same time, all the major carriers scaled back their advertising, although in late 2003 and into 2004, United and American rolled out new campaigns, from Fallon and Temerlin-McClain, respectively. In the meantime, Song's parent, Delta, continued to look for an agency partnership. By mid-2004, Delta was in the midst of another review, looking for what would be its fifth agency in the last seven years.

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