Delta takes low-key ad approach to low-cost carrier

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Rivals of song, Delta Air Lines' entry into the burgeoning low-cost airline category, are unworried by the new competition.

JetBlue-Song's main rival-as well as other low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines have not reacted to Song's April 15 launch with responsive advertising, in part due to the fact that Song has virtually no advertising of its own.

new player

JetBlue spent $17 million in measured media last year and Southwest spent $121 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. British carrier Virgin Atlantic Airways, which is planning its own low-fare entry in the U.S., is holding a review for its $15 million U.S. account.

Delta has sunk an estimated $75 million into establishing Song, but so far has done nothing more than peripheral marketing as it ramps up its routes. Public relations initiatives through New York-based Dan Klores Communications, including billboards and an open casting call to find performers who will entertain guests at the boarding gates of Song flights, have largely driven Song's debut.

Tim Mapes, Song's VP-marketing manager, said that until the airline reaches its goal of 144 daily flights later this year, it makes no sense to name a full-time agency of record. However, he is looking at shops for individual assignments.

`active consideration'

"We will be adding people to our own marketing team," Mr. Mapes said, "and we will engage a creative-service company."

Mr. Mapes said that Delta's agency of the last two years, Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, "is under active consideration."

Another possibility would be Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide. BBDO, which held the Delta account for 40 years until 1997, met last summer with Delta (AA, July 22) just after the airline completed a three-month study with consultancy McKinsey & Co. to develop a plan to compete in the low-cost arena. BBDO declined to comment.

Delta's current campaign from Leo Burnett touts its customers' ability to avoid airport check-in lines by pre-printing their own boarding passes. The airline spent $33 million in media last year, according to CMR.

Though everybody seemingly wants in on the low-cost game (in addition to Virgin Atlantic's planned entry, United Airlines parent UAL Corp. is still toying with the idea of a discount service) the players already in the category have had mixed success. While JetBlue and Southwest thrive, past efforts such as Continental Lite, U.S. Airways' Metrojet and United's own United Shuttle have ceased to exist.

rechanneling growth

Analysts aren't sure Delta's venture will survive, either.

"We don't believe Song will be profitable on a stand-alone basis," Jamie Baker, airline analyst with J.P. Morgan, recently wrote. "The goal of Song is to slow, if not re-channel, the growth of discount carriers."

It will be hard to slow JetBlue and Southwest, however. Both reported first-quarter profits two weeks ago; for Southwest, its ninth-consecutive profitable quarter.

Neither plans to counter Song's debut. Southwest has leveraged its corporate sponsorship with the National Football League, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association to introduce national ad campaigns geared around all three leagues in the last several months. Omnicom's GSD&M, Austin, handled all three.

`staying a course'

JetBlue begins service in Delta and Song's hometown of Atlanta on May 8, but it was a route that was long planned. Also planned is a TV, radio and outdoor campaign from The Ad Store, New York, set to begin today in New York, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"We're staying a course that has worked beautifully for us," said Amy Curtis-McIntyre, VP-marketing at JetBlue. "As a smart company we remain interested in what any other airline does and will adjust appropriately, but for now we have no plans to counter anything."

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