Airline Branding: Too Many Missed Opportunities to Capture Goodwill

Wrigley Field Chicago Cubs

Wrigley Field hours before the Cubs’ NLDS clinching victory over the St. Louis Cardinals

Public relations is a tricky animal, especially in the airline industry. Air travel is extremely volatile–externalities like weather and air traffic control often work against even the best airlines–which can significantly impact a traveler’s experience through no fault of the airline itself. And when a passenger’s journey is disrupted, logic often falls by the wayside as the traveler justly or unjustly directs his or her anger at the airline.

Tack on inevitable operational mistakes within an airline’s control that can impact a travel experience–unexpected maintenance issues, lack of awareness of an angry passenger’s social influence (see United Breaks Guitars in case you forgot about it)–and it’s clear that an airline should be looking for any and every opportunity to pick up public relations points where it can. Yet far too often, airlines seem to miss the low-hanging fruit that falls into their lap.

Airlines are Geographically-Bound

One of the strongest emotional ties airlines have are to a physical location–international flag carriers represent a country, and US legacy carriers strongly associate with particular cities. As such, airlines would be wise to take advantage whenever some news in their local markets provides them with an opportunity to ride the wave of positive emotions it brings.

Aforementioned United has taken several PR beatings in recent years, from the Guitars incident to the recent controversial resignation of former CEO Jeff Smisek over the Port Authority scandal. The first thing new CEO Oscar Munoz did was run a full-page letter in eight major US newspapers apologizing for United’s struggles and asking for suggestions for how they can better serve customers. Given this humble approach, you’d think United would leverage any opportunity to associate with customers’ good feelings.

United’s global headquarters is Chicago, and its primary hub of O’Hare International Airport serves the city’s north side. There is nothing that Chicago’s north side loves more than its Chicago Cubs, the lovable losers that have remained one of the most popular franchises in sports despite a century of ineptitude. Just like United aspires to do, the Cubs took a new direction a few years ago, changing ownership, bringing on a new general manager and signing a crop of fresh young talent. Those moves have paid off faster than even the most knowledgable baseball fan expected, and the 2015 Cubs are actually contending for their first World Series championship in 107 years.

Missed Opportunity

As a Cub fan myself, I flew United on Monday night, as my team took on the arch rival St. Louis Cardinals in a rare home playoff game. I was relieved to see my Boeing 737-900 equipped with in-seat televisions, but was disappointed that my free preview cut off about five minutes into the flight. I was left with a choice to watch the screen of the passenger ahead of me, or part with five dollars to watch the game with sound.

Obviously five dollars isn’t a huge price to pay, but given that about half the plane was cheering every Cub run (many watching through their neighbor’s screen), you’d think United could offer the service for free. United frequently offers free television access in the case of operational delays, which is a decision made by the captain. While I haven’t read the contract between United and inflight television provider DirecTV, I’d be shocked if there was any incremental cost to United based on how many passengers tune in on any particular flight.

As such, it would seem to be a no-brainer PR move to offer free television on flights to and from Chicago during Cubs playoff games. We’re only talking three-hour windows, maybe 10 or 12 times total. Given that the Cubs took on American as their official sponsor, this would even be an opportunity for United to stake a (cost-free) claim back on the beloved Cubbies. There certainly couldn’t be any legal or contractual complication to this, as offering free television (with a customer choice of 100+ channels) is not simply broadcasting a Cubs game to everyone.

It would be a move that costs United nothing and would delight thousands of passengers throughout the Cubs magical, unexpected run to the World Series. More importantly, the positive emotions the Cubs are generating in Chicagoans would be passed on, even if only for a few hours, to a carrier that could use any PR boost it can get.

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Customer Engagement Strategy for the Airline Industry