Marketing key for air giants

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Common sense and simple economics suggest the coming wave of airline mergers will be bad news for competition and consumers. The fewer players in the skies, the greater the chance of rising prices and more late planes, lost bags and lousy service. But these carriers won't quite be monopolies, and even giants must compete. That's where marketing must show that these combinations are good for stockholders and consumers.

If American Airlines succeeds in buying Trans World Airlines, and United Airlines closes on its buy of US Airways, then American and United will control half the U.S. air travel industry. That leaves six smaller airlines in their vapor trail--until they combine to take on the jumbos. More deals are ahead; Delta Air Lines has publicly hinted it could seek some combination of its own.

A collision course with an already unhappy consumer appears inevitable unless these highfliers demonstrate through skillful marketing what's in it for business and leisure travelers. Few, if any, airlines have established an indelible image; many travelers choose carriers based on price and frequent flyer miles. To them, these mergers mean less choice and little else: Do you prefer Monolith No. 1 or Monolith No. 2?

If these deals go through, it makes it incumbent upon American and United to pitch prices and services like never before-and to deliver. If takeoff-and-landing slots and gates are made available at airports, nimbler, small competitors will weigh in with marketing efforts pitching themselves as alternatives to the cold, hard giants. Those who think that can't be accomplished should look no further than Southwest Airlines.

When two entities hold half of any market, it becomes harder for consumers to differentiate between them-unless marketing creates clear personalities, images and service differences. For these mergers to even have a prayer of taking off, a spirit of rivalry and competitiveness established through strong marketing must take wing.

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