Traffic, labor woes defeat air marketing pitches

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Widespread flight delays and cancellations have shaken up the airline industry as traffic levels have reached record highs.

For a marketer, the issue is a particularly frustrating one. All the brilliant marketing in the world can't overcome clogged runways or pilot labor problems.

It's a reality that airlines -- notably Northwest Airlines in 1998 and United Airlines this summer -- continue to encounter. United's snarl was particularly frustrating for the airline as customers grew angry and shifted to other carriers.

The airline blamed the inconsistent service on a labor dispute with pilots, which it finally settled just before the Labor Day weekend. But United had such a bad PR experience that it pressed Chairman James Goodwin into action, featuring the executive in a 30-second spot in which he apologized for service interruptions and promised the airline would do better.


The TV spot was sandwiched between full-page newspaper ads putting forward similar commitments. Spots ran on national TV and in key markets of Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles, while the newspaper ads ran in national papers and in the same key markets.

For United, it may have been a risk to run the apology ads by placing the issue front and center for passengers.

But "the issue was already out there," a United spokesman says, "It was pretty clear we weren't running a reliable operation."

United is no stranger to passenger angst. It ranked sixth among major U.S. carriers in 1999 in on-time performance, and eighth by the end of May 2000 before the pilot-airline conflict rose to a head.

Airlines hold some advantages when well-publicized service interruptions come their way. Most dominate service in certain markets -- Delta Air Lines in Atlanta and United in Denver -- so there isn't much alternative service. Also, the public tends to have short memories, both of which make the long-term effects minimal.


Northwest has experienced record traffic levels in the past year. The airline has largely recovered from a pilot's strike in 1998 that shut down the airline for more than two weeks and a snowstorm in early 1999 that caused passengers to be stranded on planes on a Detroit runway. Still, it dominates traffic in its Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis hubs.


Perhaps showing how much on-time arrivals mean to business travelers -- the demographic that drives industry revenues -- Northwest is beginning another flight of ads this fall trumpeting its on-time performance (80.7% of its flights were on time in the five months ended May 2000, second to TWA at 81.7%).

Northwest bills itself as the "on-time airline of the decade," a positioning that has perhaps more resonance today than ever before after the summer of 2000. Continental and TWA have run ads with on-time boasts as well. According to Department of Transportation data, Southwest Airlines' 83% on-time performance is the best among the major carriers from 1987 to the present.

Northwest's on-time ads fall within the carrier's new repositioning as the airline that is "clearing the way," or making life hassle-free and obstacle-free for road warriors. "We're using the equity we have in our on-time airline of the decade claim," says Craig Braasch, managing director of worldwide advertising and sponsorships.


Mr. Braasch says Northwest is working with government officials on the overall aviation climate that may contribute to delays such as the amount of traffic that the system can handle.

When Chairman-CEO Gordon Bethune took over as head of Continental Airlines in the mid-'90s, he stressed the importance of on-time arrivals to his employees to the point the plane would take off if flight meals were late in arriving for loading. Mr. Bethune has managed to turn around the once-troubled carrier. Its on-time performance has improved recently: fifth the end of May vs. sixth most of the '90s.

These days, it remains clear that airlines that fail to deliver on-time arrivals will struggle. "As business flyers get more demanding [on-time flights] become the price of entry in our minds," Mr. Braasch says.

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