Ravaged airlines look for ways to regain altitude

By Published on .

The U.S. airline industry is facing a marketing and public relations emergency as business travelers, the ones who pay the premium rates, are quite simply afraid to fly.

As of Sept. 18, 12% of businesses were still advising against or banning all business travel, according to a survey conducted by the Business Travel Coalition. Additionally, the group expects business air travel in January 2002 to be half of what it was in January of this year.

How do the airlines convince their best customers to leave their fears on the jetway? What role can advertising, public relations and other marketing tools play in making business travelers feel safe again in row 16, seat C?

Like Johnson & Johnson’s response to the Tylenol tampering crisis, which was to pull the product from the shelves, the airlines, under orders from the Federal Aviation Administration, grounded their airplanes and initiated stricter safety measures. Planes didn’t begin carrying passengers again until three days later.

Grounding eroded confidence

Unlike Johnson & Johnson’s move, which soothed customers’ worries, the airlines’ grounding had the opposite effect on many potential travelers. "Leaving the system down further eroded confidence and played right into their [the terrorists’] hands," said Bill Oliver, VP for aviation consultancy Boyd Group/ASRC.

The quieting of the jet engines was followed by the silence of the airlines’ marketing voice. U.S. carriers pulled nearly all advertising. Aside from a few Web messages, most of which referred to enhanced security measures, they did little communicating in the first week after the attacks. They spoke up only to announce layoffs, to warn of impending bankruptcies and to lobby Congress for a financial bailout.

Brannon Cashion, senior VP with branding consultancy Addison-Whitney, agrees with the airlines’ initial approach. "The first month, you’re pretty much at the whim of what the market is going to do," he said. "I don’t think you could do anything proactive to drive business to them."

Southwest gets serious

About a week after the attack, a few airlines cautiously began marketing again. Southwest Airlines ran TV spots beginning on Sept. 19 and ran full-page print ads in The New York Times and USA Today starting the next day.

The serious, patriotic approach was a departure for Southwest. "We almost always use humor in our ads," said Melanie Jones, the company’s public relations creative director, "but that’s not appropriate right now."

Instead, the ads, created by GSD&M, described the company as "32,000 men and women with a mission: to keep America flying." Southwest also began making available to passengers stickers reading, "I flew Southwest today. Keep America flying." "They’re like an ‘I voted’ button," Jones said.

Southwest, the only major U.S. airline expected to post a profit this year, directly addressed the safety concerns on its Web site. Early in the week of Sept. 17, a message on the site read, "We know that you may be asking yourself the question ‘Should I fly by air’ after the horrible events of the past week. The 32,000-plus employees of Southwest are hard at work, night and day, to provide you with the safest and most dependable transportation possible."

National Airlines came out with a similar effort called "Get America Flying," which was promoted on its Web site and in a news release. It offered several discounted fares in hopes that savings would induce Americans to fly.

Most other airlines kept their prices firm and either remained silent or addressed the safety issue obliquely. United Airlines ran a full-page ad in the Sept. 21 Chicago Tribune that didn’t address customers’ safety concerns at all. Instead, the ad celebrated the response to the hijackings. "On Tuesday, September 11, somebody tried to take America apart," the ad read. "On Tuesday, September 11, America came together."

Chris Branthwaite, a United spokesman, explained the airline’s strategy this way: "We believe the system is secure, or we wouldn’t have resumed flying."

Action needed, not words

Some didn’t want to see marketing from the airlines. They wanted to see action.

Charles Braswell, director of global travel management for DaimlerChrysler, which is permitting travel but also allowing employees to opt out if they are uncomfortable, said he believes marketing would be ineffective in the current climate. "People can see the added security measures," he said.

"That’s more important than what you tell people you’re going to do," agreed Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. "I think the current collapse in confidence requires something very visible, which would be uniformed and armed marshals," he said.

Boyd Group’s Oliver also urged the federal government to play a larger role in airport security. "The airlines can only do so much at this time," he said. "It’s really up to the federal government, specifically the FAA, to take concrete steps to make people feel comfortable, feel safe going to the airport." He suggested that the Coast Guard assume responsibility for airport security.

While safety measures are debated, every day dawns with more red ink spilling on the runways. The long-term implications are dire because the airlines are the grease of the nation’s economic engine. "For every airline job lost, there are another three and a half jobs in other industries that are gone—ground service, limo drivers," Oliver said.

Hotel occupancy rates are a fraction of what they were last year, and management is responding by cutting back staff hours. The dropoff is due mainly to canceled business meetings.

In response, the Convention Industry Council, which represents 13,000 businesses and properties, has launched "Operation Cancellation Rescue," an effort to fill suddenly unbooked meeting spaces. A database of open space is available at

Woes help Amtrak

The airlines’ woes have helped at least two industries. Amtrak said it has had an average of 20,000 more passengers per day in the aftermath of Sept. 11, a 12% to 15% increase over last year.

Amtrak, which pulled its advertising immediately after the terrorist attacks, is today launching a campaign for its Acela Express high-speed train that has stops in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. A key audience for the campaign is business travelers, said Kajal Jhaveri, Amtrak spokeswoman.

Although the rental car industry has seen airport rentals dwindle, business has picked up in other areas. "We’ve seen a 25% increase in the use of rental vehicles for corporate travel, with people renting cars to drive 200 to 300 miles for a short business trip," said Sarah Bustamante, communications specialist for Enterprise Rental Car.

Rather than face the fear of flying and the added hassle of increased security, business travelers planning trips of less than 500 miles are forgoing the runways for the highways, according to the Business Travelers Coalition. "If it’s six hours to go door to door, and you have to go through the airport, get hassled, and pay $1,200, why wouldn’t you go for four hours in a car, listening to Rachmaninoff?" Mitchell asked.

Most Popular
In this article: