Testing (Again) the Strength of a Brand

US Airways Pushes the Limits of Consumer Patience

By Published on .

Marc Brownstein Marc Brownstein
Last Friday, the East Coast was blanketed with a late-winter ice storm. It wreaked havoc everywhere, including travel. Fortunately, all of my business meetings were canceled that day, so my travel was close to home. For tens of thousands of others in Philly trying to board a plane out of town, they weren't so lucky. Those folks had to incur the wrath of US Airways, and its stumbling, over-promising/under-delivering band of managers.

To give you a sense of what life is like living with US Airways, consider this:
  • Baggage is consistently lost -- more than any other airline, according to surveys.
  • Most of time, there is no one there to move the rampway to the plane. So passengers are accustomed to sitting on planes for an extra 20 minutes after landing.
  • The US Airways staff is rude. They have been through multiple bankruptcies, CEOs and mergers. The airline's employees operate in an every-man-for-himself mode.
  • Recently, the airline merged with America West. Many promises of improvements were made, including a new online reservation system. When the airline made the switchover to the new system, US Airways' entire computer system went down for days, creating mayhem, long lines, and further delays for all passengers. Good IT planning!
  • And last Friday, as the ice storm pelted the planes, the airline allowed passengers to board, sent the planes to the runways, then kept them there for an average of seven hours. Passengers were livid. Once again.
So, what does this have to do with marketing?

Customers are brand loyal -- to a point. I wonder how many screw-ups, how many empty promises from management, how many failed attempts to serve its customers can the US Airways brand withstand?

Not many more, in my opinion.

Many passengers are already fleeing to a new competitor in town, Southwest Airlines. And local legislators, who themselves have endured far too many stressful flights on the airline, are rumored to have been courting other airlines as well. And customers, like me, are cancelling their US Airways affinity Visa credit cards, which provide commissions on every purchase to the airline, and mileage points for the cardholder. Fewer consumers want to be beholden to the brand.

If I were advising the airline, I'd recommend that they stop making promises that they cannot deliver. Create a customer-care program that rewards/compensates passengers immediately when things go wrong. And communicate honestly. Stop the cutesy newsletters from management, informing us of planned or perceived improvements.

Start respecting its customers. Play it real. No hype. And, for goodness sake, quit damaging its brand by under-delivering consistently.

There's no doubt in my mind that if consumers had more of a choice in airlines, US Airways would be in even bigger trouble. But until consumers do, management should stop taking its bread and butter for granted. Because, one day, a new airline will come into town, and no frequent flier program will be able to stop the brand defections.
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