When an Airline's Image Sparkles
Some airlines’ business strategies include an emphasis on glamour.
It’s easy to wax nostalgic about the glamorous days of travel. But the reality of those bygone days was a little less dreamy. Flying used to be much more noisy, turbulent and dangerous. Economy-class food was the butt of late-night talk-show jokes. Airports, airplane cabins and passengers reeked of cigarette smoke. Most airports were drafty, fluorescent-lit corridors leading to planes—sans airline lounges.
These days, business and first class seats fold down into lie-flat beds, complete with comforters or quilts and pillows. Celebrity chefs prepare in-flight meals using fresh, local or artisanal ingredients. Airport lounges are now as big and sumptuous as they are ubiquitous. And 2011 was the safest year for flying—ever.
For many, the glamorous, glory days of travel are right now. These four individuals are committed to taking the airline experience to new heights.
Classy Ads: Dreamy Branding
Historically staid Korean Air spiked on the travel glamour meter in 2007 with the debut of its sensual, almost flirtatious “What Korean Air is made of” campaign, which looked more haute couture than airline. The mesmerizing TV spots featured fashion models blotting lipstick on envelopes, spritzing perfume and popping Champagne corks in a dreamy sequence accompanied by trance music. No airline had done anything like it before.
The radical change in how the airline presented itself to the world was the brainchild of Emily Cho, the youngest daughter of KAL chairman Cho Yang-ho. After graduating from the University of Southern California, Cho interned with KAL’s agency, LG Advertising, in Seoul, and joined the airline in 2007.
While the campaign initially puzzled observers, it successfully raised awareness of the airline and led to a second round of provocative ads in 2010, titled “Life on a whole new scale,” again featuring high-fashion models. But in the second set of ads, models appear as giants towering over exotic travel-centric locations, such as airports, bridges and waterfalls, along with the same ethereal music.
“Emily definitely had the chairman’s ear, and without her input, we would not have seen that campaign,” says Penny Pfaelzer, a communications consultant for Korean Air in the U.S., adding, “There’s no doubt that recognition and retention around the Korean Air brand has spiked since the campaign’s inception.”
Recognition of Cho has spiked as well—she’s rapidly risen to head of the airline’s global communications team in her short tenure; Cho is now in charge of all of Korean Air’s advertising, public relations and social media strategies.
Designer Details: Unexpected Pleasure in a Cup of Bling
Virgin America passengers get a glimmer of glamour every time they polish off a drink and peer down into the empty plastic cup. What they see is a unique faceted design molded into the clear plastic that makes it appear as though they are looking inside a carved gemstone. They also see a snarky snippet embossed on the bottom of the cup that reads, “Was it as refreshing for you as it was for me?”
That kind of attention to seemingly small visual details is what Virgin America got when it hired Jesse McMillin for the post of design director as the airline cranked up operations in 2007. The image you have of the spunky West Coast start-up airline probably originated in his mind. “I oversee everything creatively that happens here, from advertising and marketing all the way to in-flight experience, events, signage, partnerships, everything,” he says.
When it came time to order cups in 2010, McMillin says, “I thought that just slapping a logo on the standard airline cup felt like a bit of a cop-out.”
So he called the manufacturer and asked if he could completely redesign the cup’s shape to be something unique and different. While that request startled the cup makers, they said they could actually make a new mold at the same cost.
McMillin beams: “I’m particularly proud of our cups because they are things that other airlines take for granted and don’t put much time or thought into. I’ve gotten a really great response on them so far too, which is always a great compliment.”
Luxe Lounges: Service on the Ground as Posh as in the Air
Airport lounges are becoming so plush that it’s tempting to get to the airport early just to soak in all the sumptuousness. Case in point: Emirates Airline’s brand-new business and first class lounge at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), where premium passengers rest up for the 15.5-hour nonstop flight over the North Pole to Dubai.
For years, Emirates passengers shared quarters with United Airlines customers at its massive business-class lounge at SFO’s International Terminal. But last year Emirates got its hands on an unused transit lounge and transformed it into the poshest perch at the airport—and the only Emirates lounge on the West Coast. The oversize space (9,500 square feet) is large enough to comfortably seat 140 passengers—but that kind of crowd is unlikely since the Emirate’s Boeing 777s that fly between San Francisco and Dubai have only 50 premium seats.
The décor should be recognizable to regular Emirates flyers since it is based on a global cost-is-no-object design that Emirates has rolled out at more than 25 lounges around the world.
“Our lounge at San Francisco International consists of marble floors, gold Rolex clocks, LED TVs and leather armchairs,” says Don Surrendra, product development manager for Emirates Airport Services. “It has the largest dining area among the other lounges at SFO airport and offers customers an extensive selection on a hot and cold gourmet buffet and an elaborate beverage service including premium wines, spirits and Champagne. The menu changes monthly, and we are mindful to offer halal food offerings for our Muslim passengers.”
Emirates is also the only carrier at SFO to offer lounge guests a private prayer room with space for three that includes a dedicated foot-washing station. The lounge also provides free Wi-Fi, showers and a business center. Another nice touch: Passengers have direct boarding access to the aircraft, so there is no need to exit the lounge and walk through the airport to the gate.
Fresh Meals: Taking Napa Valley to the Air
To make its mark in the hypercompetitive transcontinental market to New York from Los Angeles and San Francisco, Delta Air Lines recently teamed up with celebrity chef Michael Chiarello to bring a fresh approach to dinner in its BusinessElite cabins. Chiarello’s renowned Napa Valley restaurant, Bottega, is known among foodies for its Italian-inspired artisanal and local fare.
“Michael was a strategic choice for us: His restaurant and reputation appeal to the upscale passenger that flies in business class on transcon flights—they are sophisticated and understand and appreciate good food and wine,” says Peter Wilander, managing director of onboard services at Delta.
Chiarello helped develop Delta’s elaborate multicourse winter dinner menu, which starts off with antipasti misto that include fennel-spiced crostini served with a roasted squash spread, pickled mushrooms and a nutty dry jack cheese from Sonoma. Next comes a small plate of pesto penne served with broccoli rabe and a dollop of fresh ricotta cheese. Entrées include chicken Milanese served with roasted brussels sprouts or pancetta-wrapped beef tenderloin served with pesto mashed potatoes and roasted mushrooms. For dessert, there’s strawberry, pistachio or chocolate hazelnut gelato.
The celebrity angle is clearly helping Delta bring back some glamour to in-flight dining—Chiarello is only the most recent addition to Delta’s stable of food and wine experts. Delta also works with Miami-based chef and author Michelle Bernstein (Michy’s, Sra. Martinez) and Andrea Robinson, a master sommelier and the dean of wine studies at the French Culinary Institute.
Other Glimpses of Glamour
For airlines’ most valued passengers, even more upgrades are being built into the travel experience. Take note of these recent developments for premium passengers:
- First-class passengers on British Airways can now hang coats and store shoes in personal, seat-side valet closets.
- On Lufthansa, a first-class passenger gets his own combination locker for secure storage of personal effects.
- Singapore Airlines’ new in-flight amenity kits are now stocked with lotions and potions from Kiehl’s.
- Another of Cathay Pacific’s signature fresh, chef-staffed noodle bars has landed in its chic new business-class lounge at San Francisco International.
- Delta has teamed up with Porsche to surprise and delight elite SkyMiles members with rock-star chauffeur service from the plane (via Cayenne or Panamera) to the parking lot at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.
- Etihad Airways has installed full-length mirrors in its oversize, two-windowed, first-class lavatories, which it calls “changing rooms.”
Christopher McGinnis writes on business travel from San Francisco.