The fall of giants – Are airlines selling their soul?
The fall of giants. Those words alone evoke strong emotions and epic tales. Tales of heroes, quests to save the world, to make it a better place, to give leg room to tired travellers and treat them fairly in a harshly competitive world.
Epic tales indeed, that are still told by many airlines through their brands. Brands that continue to promise us all that being locked up in a tube for 14 hours will be fun and that travel is still as glamorous as it was in the old days. Brands that promise they are different, different from the cruel LCC monsters.
Different from those airlines that cram passengers in tiny seats, make money with ancillaries, give people the low fares they want and make jokes about paying to pee. Different from airlines who promise that – if the regulators let them – they will make everyone stand for the whole flight.
Different in words but often the same in practice, because in the real world many giants are falling and turning into the very thing that they claim to not to be. They fly passengers in the same cramped seats and charge the same “cruel” extras but often lack the agility and the lower costs of their rivals.
This article is a tale of two worlds and of what may become of them. It looks at what role brands will have in the future and how the giants of old are adapting to this new world.
Part 1: Ryanair has a great brand
I wrote it a few years ago and I stand by it today. Airlines like Ryanair and Spirit have great brands. Brands that do their job of sending a clear message, that doesn’t over promise and give a realistic image of what passengers can expect on board. They may not be likeable, but that hardly matters because they work.
They attract the right target market and create expectations that are not only met but that the airline can over-deliver on. The same can be said of brands like Southwest Airlines, KLM or Singapore Airlines.
All these airlines know who they are and are successful because of it. Passengers do sort by price, of course, they would be fools not to. But after sorting they choose the airline that they prefer and some will go further down the list than others, depending on how strong their preference is. In fact, it can be argued that the more a passenger flies, the stronger their preferences.
Part 2: Perceptions
The trouble for many airlines is that the passenger’s experience is always subjective and is the result of the contrast between what they expect and what they receive. For airlines like Singapore Airlines, this is not a problem, they promise good service and they will go above and beyond to ensure passengers will get it.
The same can be said for airlines like Southwest, that does offer low prices but above it all promises to care and offer a human treatment. As consultants, we are perhaps more attuned to spot these differences than the average person but the signs are everywhere.
Unfortunately, perceptions seldom change easily. On paper, any airline with a valid AOC and some cash can turn into an LCC but in practice, it is often like steering the Titanic.
Part 3: The Iceberg
Airlines that for decades have marketed themselves as offering excellent service and representing a nation cannot simply wake up one day and turn the ship around. The iceberg is there, we all know that, but trying to smash through it may be less dangerous than trying to turn around and avoid it. Especially since the bigger problem is underwater, not above it.
Sure, the most visible part of the problem is the angry passengers and the media making noise about the disgrace of the national airline, but the real bulk is inside the airline. The hardest thing to change is an airline’s culture and the way it is organized.
Too often, when running assessments we see this happening. One part of the airline is making policy changes and taking cost-cutting measures. The other – especially in the communication area – still behaves like it has always done.
This sometimes leads to spectacular failures where communication teams try to cover up the removal of a once free service as an improvement to the airline and something good for the passenger. At the same time, the client-facing staff is left confused because their training taught them to do the opposite of what they are now been asked to do.
Change is possible and necessary, no doubt about that but not all brands can take the same path.
Part 4: The icebreakers
A case in point is what we may call the icebreakers, airlines that stood up to the challenge and found new ways to fight. A good example is once again Singapore Airlines that – while maintaining its main product at a high level – also owns two separate airlines Scoot and Silk Air that are designed to compete with other LCCs and regional carriers.
This approach, from our perspective, makes far more sense and is starting to be seen elsewhere in the industry. Airlines like KLM, who owns the LCC Transavia have done the same but have also made many changes to their internal processes to become more agile and responsive.
The result is an airline that still keeps its promise but at the same time is able to adapt to changes and has been a pioneer in both customer service and customer engagement, building loyalty and ensuring perceptions remain positive.
Part 5: What’s next?
So where do we go from here? Well, as a consultant it would be irresponsible of me to give advice without first conducting an assessment of the airline, but at the same time, it would be cruel to end such an article without a conclusion.
This much I will say: traditional airlines have a lot to learn from LCCs and costs will need to be lowered, but change must start from the inside of the airline and from an active engagement with customers. Whether then the airline attempts to steer away from the iceberg or keep its course straight it will be a matter for the board to consider.
For those that would like to talk and see how marketing and communication teams can bring about change, I am happy to talk. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org