Airlines' New Online Marketing Strategies
Why airlines are reviving their marketing workhorses: websites.
The founder of Pan Am World Airways once characterized the jet airplane as having “shrunken the earth.” Little could Juan Trippe have imagined in the ’60s just how small the earth could become with help from the World Wide Web. Rather than eliminate the need for travel, however, the Internet seems to have enhanced it as airlines stoke the public’s appetite to go places and social networks turn airline passengers into cheerleaders for airlines and destinations. And executives’ increased global travel is particularly serviceable by the Internet.
“We’re a brand that people want to talk about,” says Simon Bradley, vice president of marketing for Virgin Atlantic U.S., the London-based international carrier that is part of Richard Branson’s empire of Virgin-branded companies. From records to mobile phones to wine and airlines, the Virgin “voice” is cheeky and fun and Bradley says it is important for the airline to convey that image to business travelers, vacationers and travel agents. “We’re a conversational brand. We try to use digital platforms to really communicate the experience of flying Virgin Atlantic,” he says.
For its website, Virgin Atlantic uses a hip voice along with photographs and design to excite customers about the travel experience. “It’s not rocket science; it’s about engaging people properly,” says Bradley, pointing with pride to the airline’s redesigned webpage answering customers’ questions about baggage. Providing simple information, it is the most visited page on their site.
Consider how much has changed in just the past 15 years. In the ’90s, airlines were so eager to have travelers book online, they charged extra for access to a reservation agent. By 2008, the entire airline industry had transitioned from paper to e-tickets for a savings of $18 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association.
In an industry of multimillion-dollar machines, a rigid infrastructure, a large workforce and heavy reliance on high-priced fuel, airlines are justifiably nervous about how fast things are happening. Offering online access to customers required years of development and refinement, and no sooner was it in place than it was out of date.
“The industry has been through the Internet wave; the next wave is the mobility wave,” says Jim Peters, chief technology officer for SITA, an aviation communications and technology company. Airlines are still struggling with the issues of the earlier wave, Peters says, but customers have moved on. This migration to mobile is especially true for business travelers, 82 percent of whom travel with a smartphone, according to a recent Concur/GBTA study.
At American Airlines, the website AA.com is considered the least sexy aspect of the company’s digital presence. American characterizes its website as the workhorse powering three passenger basics: reservations, frequent flyer accounts and general information, but the hot new operation is using the web to reach out to customers with mobile phone apps and in social networks.
“The way we think about the website is, it’s not the front end it’s the back end,” says Rick Elieson, managing director of AA.com. Customers are demanding information through their portable electronic devices, he says. “In a business whose model calls for getting people face-to-face, we don’t have those face-to-face connections until our customers get to the airport,” Elieson says. “The interesting thing is you improve your customer experience by putting more tools in their hands.”
Some airlines do it better than others, and many are resistant to the kind of radical revisions described by James Hogan, chief executive of Etihad Airways, in a speech to a technology forum this fall.
“It seems laptops are destined for the scrap heap in the same way as the pay phone and the CD,” Hogan says. “The handheld device has broached a whole new paradigm of convenience.”
Beyond the Website: Facebook
Turning the airline website from passive recipient of consumer traffic to active pursuer of would-be travelers is the biggest thing to happen in airline marketing since frequent flyer programs. Airlines are going at it in a variety of imaginative ways. Much of the action pivots around Facebook. Research from American Airlines shows that, work be damned, when people use the web in flight, the site they most often visit is Facebook.
At least two airlines have purchased one-way tickets to the world of Facebook: Malaysia and Alaska. With more than a quarter million fans, Malaysia Airlines sells airline tickets and then encourages passengers to invite their Facebook friends to join them on the trip. Travelers can even see if people in their network are flying on the same plane.
Alaska Airlines doesn’t actually sell tickets through Facebook, but its Flying Social app does give users a map on which friends’ locations are noted, overlaid with an Alaska Airlines route map and fare information. Shashank Nigam, who runs the airline consulting firm Simpliflying, says this use of social communities is revolutionary because it turns the airline’s passengers into its sales force.
“Airlines have got to focus on who their customer is. If they’re leisure travelers the airline has got to be on Facebook and Twitter,” says Nigam, suggesting that in the near future similar programs will probably be launched for LinkedIn, to tap into the circle of business travelers. Airlines have to experiment with different ideas for different travelers, he says. “They need to try five things. Two will work and three will not. And one will work very well and you’ve got to keep doing that.”
Peters says that many aviation companies are still “behind the eight ball in the migration from old to new,” with airlines hampered by long-standing relationships and legacy technology that is outside of their control. This is one reason American and US Airways pursued lawsuits in 2011 claiming that the service companies whose systems support airline ticket sales through travel agents—known as GDS—were engaged in anti-competitive behavior. According to American, the providers of airline flight information to travel agents used 1960s technology focused only on price and schedule, “limiting the ability of airlines to sell a new category of ancillary services.”
“Travel choices are expanding beyond fares to include optional services like checked baggage, priority boarding and preferred seating,” an American representative explained, drawing a comparison with the online retailer Amazon, which makes suggestions to customers about related products based on prior purchases before the sale is completed.
Peters agreed, “The ability to do what they want to do in the e-commerce world is constrained by old systems.”
Taking Back the Message
While driving sales is critical, Etihad’s Hogan says the digital age also demonstrates to airlines that their image has never been more reliant on the individual experiences of passengers. Airlines “no longer control the message,” he says.
Southwest Airlines felt the online wrath of several passengers who posted videos to YouTube after airline employees told them they were too fat to fly. An anonymous traveler wrote to Richard Branson complaining about the food on a Virgin Atlantic flight, a letter that—along with photographs of the offending meal tray—soon went viral. And David Carroll, a Canadian folksinger whose guitar was broken while in the custody of United Airlines, became the voice of customer rage when the airline declined to reimburse him for the broken instrument. Carroll posted on YouTube three bitingly funny music videos assailing United. More than 10 million people have viewed them.
“Five years ago if David had that experience, it would have been ‘Tough luck, Dave’,” says Greg Gianforte, CEO and founder of RightNow, a company that advises airlines and other businesses on how to handle customer service. “Because of social media [like] YouTube and Twitter, every single consumer has a huge megaphone for advocating for companies or tearing them down.”
The global aviation industry is responsible for moving an estimated 2.5 billion people a year, a number even the visionary Juan Trippe of Pan Am might not have imagined. At the same time, technology gives airlines the opportunity to interact with each one of these travelers on a highly personalized basis. The world is even smaller than Trippe prophesied—small enough to fit onto the screen of a business traveler’s handheld device.
Christine Negroni is an aviation writer and frequent contributor to The New York Times.