Airlines Can Break Your Heart

17th January 2017

Love / Hate at 30,000 feet

I am reminded of how emotionally I engage with the world as I sit down to send a message of thanks to a hotel I have just stayed in.

In fact, there were a couple of screw ups during my stay but I make a point to praise them, because the hotel dealt with those issues in such a graceful and caring way. I like them even more for having got it wrong, in order to put it so right.

I think that, in marketing, we can make the mistake of believing that all consumer interactions with our brands are equal. But this is not true. As human beings, we are psychologically wired for exceptionalism. We remember the very good, and the very bad. Everything else washes over us. The good and bad give meaning to brand. And if the enterprise is brand building (and not business building), we should be directing a disproportionate amount of funds to optimise the former and convert the latter.

I call these experiences the list of the ‘Unforgotten’ and ‘Unforgiven’. The first makes a mark because it is so good. The second, because it is so…objectionable.

To illustrate the point, let me recount some air travel stories.

I have never worked in the airline sector, but boy do I love it. Full of human drama, big stories, and a deeply emotional branded category even though, on the face of it, it’s job is simply the logistics of getting people from A to B.

First, the good news. These are my ‘Unforgotten’ airline stories i.e. brand experiences so good, they’re imprinted for all time

– AlItalia. It was in the 90s, before cockpits became no-go maximum security zones. I was excited to be flying over the Alps on the way to Rome, and asked the stewardess if I could see the mountains from the front. She duly asked the captain, which led to my spending 10 minutes in the jump-seat of the cockpit, with the snow-capped range that Hannibal crossed stretched before me. The pilot pointed out Mount Blanc, and then I simply watched him at work. All buttons and lists. I was in my mid 20s, and have never forgotten that experience, nor the airline that made it possible.

– Aer Rianta: in the years after 9/11, travelling became one hell of a chore. I think it took us all several years to internalise the new rules. For example, I now never wear a belt or hard shoes when I travel; I have dumped toiletry bags in favour of plastic bags; and I make sure there are no penknives in my luggage. Penknives. I had a habit of carrying them around at one time, and in Dublin airport in 2002, security found my favourite Swiss Army knife in my hand luggage. I was upset, as it was a gift from good friends. I told the chap so, but there was nothing he could do. It had to be confiscated. As I was about to leave, he asked for my address. Three weeks later, and on his own time, that security man knocked on my hall door and presented me with my penknife. It was an act of kindness that I will not forget. I do not know if Aer Rianta employs Dublin Airport’s security – but my mind has given them the credit for bringing humanity to the rules and rote of travel safety.

– Aer Lingus. When you’re young, you’re dumb to the rules of the world. I was headed to a job interview in France in 1989, and for some reason had it in my head the the European Community meant that no passports were needed. I rocked up with my driver’s licence. Aer Lingus took pity on my, advising me to travel immediately to London in order to plan my onward journey. They then took possession of my passport in Dublin, and brought it over to me on a later flight. I was reunited with my passport just in time to make the French connection. I made the interview (and got the job). There is something warm about Aer Lingus. I have long decided that it is an organisation determined to serve people, not just shift passengers, and has fostered a culture willing to bend where it can to help their guests.

Then, the bad news. My ‘Unforgiven’ airline stories i.e. brand experiences so bad, they’re imprinted for all time

– EasyJet: I have only ever once intended to fly with EasyJet. I bought the ticket, turned up at the airport, to find they had cancelled the flight. Shit happens. I made alternative arrangements immediately as I needed to be where I needed to be for work. EasyJet took no contact with me, and never reimbursed my credit card with the flight cost. It was a time that I was so busy I did not have the energy to invest in the labyrinthine ways that airlines offer compensation in a manner to discourage the act of seeking compensation. I have considered EasyJet thieves ever since.

– British Airways. In 2008, BA opened T5 at Heathrow and neglected to make sure the whole thing worked before switching over, overnight. The result was pandemonium, as they discovered that the baggage system was so damned sophisticated they could not make it work. Flights were delayed and cancelled for days and days. I was not involved directly, but the sheer incompetence of BA in letting such a high profile, high stakes opening go sour has never left me. I am reticent to ever fully trust the brand again.

– Ryanair. I remember the time that I decided I disliked this airline. I was in a small airport in France, coming home after a nice break – relaxed and at one with the world. Then I witnessed two fellow passengers (one with a child) being ordered by airline staff to reduce the weight and / or number of their carry-on bags. In front of about eighty people waiting at the gate, these women were on their knees, unpacking holiday luggage in plain view. Squeezing clothes into one bag. Wearing extra layers. Physically dumping other items to lighten the load. I will not forget the humiliation on their faces, nor the bullying airline that put them through it. No amount of relaunches will allow me excuse the cynicism and disrespect that lies at the core of that airline’s culture. I travel with them only when no other solution presents.

Deep within the brain’s circuitry, standout emotional experiences, good and bad, inform how we look at the travel brands presented to us by online search engines. And a single act of kindness, which perhaps occured over ten years ago, may well be the deciding factor in determining choice.

Brand building happens over the long-term. And in marketing, we reap what we sow.

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