Fly me: Branding airline employees

August 5, 2010

I have been flying for over fifty years. A lot has changed from my first flight on a noisy DC-7 traveling from Los Angeles to Denver to my longest flight in the flat bed of business class on a 747-800 from Hong Kong to New York. Innovation in aircraft design has advanced many times over the years. Technology has improved inside planes as well. I have seen in-flight entertainment go from a piano bar in the first 747 upper deck, to telephones and video games in seat backs, movies on demand in armrests, live TV with 25 channels, and now WI-FI.

I have also seen airline brands come and go—either taken over by their bigger competitors, or forced out of business due to fuel prices, regulations, or poor management.

But the one constant that has differentiated one airline from another is its people. There are few other service businesses where a company’s employees are as critical in living and expressing the brand through their actions.

Stewardesses—as we formerly called today’s flight attendants—captured the early glamour and excitement of flying. That was the era of “coffee, tea or me.” Stewardesses on PSA, an airline serving California and the West, wore pink hot pants, Go-go boots, and Britain’s Carnaby Street inspired hats. The jets had women’s names painted on their smiling nosecones. Their ads? “I’m Suzi. Fly me.” The brand stood out from the military-inspired flight attendants on the traditional airlines like the venerable Pan Am.

But it was also in the Eighties that Jan Carlson, the CEO of SAS—the Scandinavian airline—revived the deplorable spirit and service levels for employees with his idea of Moments of Truth. Those were those 15-second opportunities when a welcome aboard smile, a fulfilled request for special drink, or the recognition of a frequent passenger gave airline employees the chance to show what the brand was really all about.

In all the flying I’ve done since then on business and for pleasure, the differences between brands have become even more pronounced as airlines rise to the same level of sophistication about branding as other companies and do their best to deliver on their brand promise.

Take Jet Blue. A younger, hipper airline that thought about all expressions of their brand before the jets ever took off. From the “blue-based” names on their planes (“Blue Moon” or “Blue Suede Shoes”) to their blue snack choices to their “True Blue” frequent flier program. I know from my own experience in talking with many Jet Blue flight attendants that they go through brand training that emphasizes their brand values—which include fun, safety and integrity. One flight attendant rattled them off to me and said it was up to each person to determine how to bring these to life. So some joke around with the passengers over the public address system, others give out extra goodies without being asked.

Southwest is the “wild and crazy” brand, exemplified by its original cattle car run for open seating, has singing flight attendants who are prone to jokes, sometimes even wearing crazy costumes.

KLM, the epitome of Dutch sobriety, shows off their brand through the efficiency of their service, strict and orderly in-flight procedures—all done with the dry humor the Netherlanders are famous for. It inspires confidence and, for me a particularly skittish flier, calm.

Perhaps the best example of flight staff living their brand was on a business trip I once took on British Airways from New Delhi, India to London. With a travel time of 13 hours overnight, I was lucky enough to get bumped up to first from business class. There were posh flat beds, double tucked sheets, puffy comforters, full size pillows and personal pajamas. But what really made the luxury, prestige and high standards of the British Airways brand come to life were the Scottish flight attendants in first class. Think Mrs. Doubtfire, if she was really a woman, and much prettier, and a decade or two younger. If I had asked them to tuck me in with a bedtime story, I’m sure they would have obliged.

Sadly, more and more airlines these days are cutting back on service. Flight attendants are now servers, hosts, garbage collectors, baggage handlers, seat cops, and looking more and more overworked. Gone are the designer uniforms of United’s Ted and Delta’s Song experiments. Gone is the glamour of flying’s early days. Gone the hot pants.

So the next time a flight attendant says over the PA, “we know you have a choice in air travel, and we are glad you chose us,” maybe they need to give us a better reason to choose them than just getting passengers to their destination safely.

(By the way, this blog was written while flying on American from Nashville to New York. And the flight attendant, well, I don’t even remember her.)

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