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How marketers can improve U.S. air travel's lousy reputation

Air travel isn’t what it used to be. At least that’s a common gripe among U.S. passengers nostalgic for the luxury travel experience equated with Pan Am in the 60s and 70s. While U.S. airlines have cut back to bare-bones services and cramped quarters, their counterparts abroad are entering a new age of jet travel glamour.

First-class passengers aboard an Emirates Airbus A380 enjoy suites with sliding doors for complete privacy, a vanity table, personal mini-bar, wardrobe, desk and a chair that converts into a bed, according to a recent Vanity Fair article. There are two showers on board, and the menu includes caviar and fine wine labels. Coach seats come with 13-inch seat-back television screens and access to 1,500 channels.

“U.S. airlines, similar to their counterparts in Europe, are no longer in the position to compete against the Gulf-based carriers in terms of luxury,” says Raymond Kollau, founder of industry research company Airlinetrends.com. Instead, he says, they’ll emerge from an era of austerity by providing increasingly personalized journeys.

A changing landscape

“Airlines have cut both the number of routes they serve and the number of aircraft seats available overall, while ticket prices have risen significantly,” says Jack Plunkett, CEO of Plunkett Research, a provider of business and industry information to corporate, library, academic and government markets. At the same time, the number of passengers continues to rise. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that the number of passengers boarding an airplane at an airport will grow from 670 million this year to 822 million in 2024.

A recent survey from the U.S. Travel Association found that passengers' frustration with the flying experience resulted in 38 million avoided domestic plane trips in 2013. The Association estimates that costs the U.S. economy $35.7 billion in travel-related business. More than half of passengers (52 percent) said that they would be willing to pay slightly more to fly if the extra cost funded projects that reduce delays and cancellations and improve the overall passenger experience at airports.

Marketing’s flight path

With more passengers, more regulations and higher costs, U.S. airline marketers have their work cut out for them. “The terminals, the décor, the less than friendly atmosphere, the poor infrastructure and long delays — we’re way behind other nations,” Plunkett says. “Marketers who want to attract passengers to fly on U.S. flagged airlines [carriers registered under U.S. law] into the U.S. are going to have to be as creative as possible to help offset these very obvious and well known problems.” He says that marketers should try offering more packaged vacations with unusual experiences and perks, and improve targeting to particular audiences. “Better accommodations for families and business travelers, with some serious separation between these groups, would be a start.”

Some marketers are beginning to tailor initiatives to the local culture of emerging markets to attract customers, according to a report from Airlinetrends.com. For example, British Airways launched a series of promotions targeting Indian travelers.

Personalizing the experience with digital and social

In-flight Wi-Fi and a growing number of connected devices among passengers offer new opportunities for airlines to engage with customers. Delta allows travelers to track their luggage in real-time using a mobile app, for example. Passengers on an Aerolineas Argentinas new B737 soon will be able to order food and drinks via their own devices.

“Airlines are working hard to come up with innovative digital products and services that cater to connected travelers at all stages of their journey,” Kollau says, adding that there’s much room for improvement. “Airlines know they have critical data on passengers, but the key is figuring out how to monetize that information.” Marketers have a wealth of customer data from frequent flyer programs and social channels.

KLM asked Facebook fans to vote for the top two destinations where they'd like to fly. Then the carrier created a social offer for the winning locations. Every time someone shared the offer, KLM reduced the booking price. The airline experienced a 700 percent increase in bookings than a normal day, according to Airlinetrends.com.

To engage its customers, Hawaiian Airlines is ramping up content marketing efforts. The carrier is developing original stories and photography from the islands for travelers to browse as they search for flights. "The shopping experience with Hawaiian Airlines should become as much about discovering and dreaming and planning for a trip as it is about buying that airline seat," Avi Mannis, senior vice president of marketing at Hawaiian Airlines, tells Pacific Business News.

Plunkett says he doesn't think U.S. airlines need to invest in ultra plush lounges or first-class compartments on par with Gulf carriers in order to compete. "Instead, they need to focus on making us feel better about being jammed into an uncomfortable flying aluminum tube for a few hours," he says. "Some airlines really take this to heart and do a good job of boosting brand reputation. If I ran an airline, that would be my primary focus."

[Image via Can Stock Photo]

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