Is the Airline Industry Headed for (Another) Crash Landing? Here’s Some PR Advice

Apr 11, 2013

“Controlled flight into terrain.”

That’s the term used by the Federal Aviation Administration to describe when a pilot, unknowingly and with full command of the aircraft, finds the ground or another natural obstruction a little too close for comfort. Forgive me, but “controlled flight into terrain” sounds like BS for…I don’t know…CRASH LANDING, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!

Granted, this is not the kind of airline language the public usually hears. But when one evaluates wording so removed from human emotion and empathy in the context of recent airline actions, the results of a new customer satisfaction survey aren’t surprising. Released by Wichita State and Purdue University, the 2013 Airline Quality Rating Report finds passenger complaints have risen 22% in a year despite the fact that more planes landed and took off on time and lost baggage rates actually dropped.

But peeved passengers often don’t credit airlines for doing things they’re supposed to do. Speaking as a frequent flier – and as the report highlights – airlines’ increasingly crammed cabins and fewer empty middle seats are angering us. Short of replacing seats with subway-style hanging straps, I can’t imagine the economy section getting any more crowded.

That is, until at the recent Aircraft Interiors and World Travel Catering Expo in Hamburg, Recaro, a popular seat maker, unveiled its new “Comfort Line” (CL) 3710 economy class seat for long-haul flights. While the company’s press release expounds on the seats’ key benefit – about 20% lighter than the company’s previous models – glossed over are glaring customer experience cutbacks.

Since 2010 Recaro has pioneered the airline “slim seat,” – ironically, in an age of less slim passengers. Slimmer seats give PR execs a way to promote increased leg room. But when half of another passenger’s body is spilling into my seat and onto my lap, room to wiggle my toes is not a top priority.

My PR advice to the airline industry? Try a little honesty and transparency. And maybe even break the mold.

Don’t misunderstand. In an age of unstable fuel costs, and with ticket prices comprising a fraction of airline revenue, 20% weight reductions are significant. Lighter planes burn less fuel and have less of a carbon footprint. It also allows airlines to reduce bag weight restrictions or, via a loyalty program, shuffle who can take which hefty bags on board.

I’m not even against slimmer seats. I oppose the manner in which these “upgrades” are marketed. And regarding overweight passengers? Rather than sidestepping morbid obesity and calling passengers “oversized” like some piece of luggage, airlines should be bold. Unlike my butt, passenger seats have shrunk in the last decade. But waistlines have expanded much more – just like my butt. What if a particularly daring airline incentivized healthier lifestyles by offering weight-based ticketing – not as penalty, but to help travelers help themselves, their wallets and the airlines? Airlines could well be seen as true partners and not parasites. Think about offices incentivizing group workouts and healthier eating. Of course companies want greater productivity and reduced sick days.

But it’s all about how the message is delivered, isn’t it?

Airline PR is tricky. But if the industry doesn’t change the tune of its messaging soon, it might be in for an uncontrolled impact with terrain” – another glorious term.

What are your thoughts about this topic? Does airline PR require enhanced “situational awareness?” Share your views in the comments section below.

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