Flying Brands

10 Apr

American Airlines grounds more than 100,000 passengers. The airline is playing a dangerous game — you could say that they’re cynically responding to Congress’ bluster and over reacting to minor maintenance problems, or you could say that they’ve been poorly maintaining their airplanes for years, and that with every flight there’s a disaster waiting to happen. 

Today’s story is pretty familiar by now: the major carriers are running fewer flights, and the flights they run average 80% full.  American cancels 1200 flights and there’s no one to pick up the slack. 

There’s a brand issue here.  My trust, at least, has been in big airline brands that had the number of flights and geographic scope to take care of me and get me to and fro when there’s a problem.  My biggest fear about traveling with a small carrier is that if there’s a problem with the one flight — with the one plane for that flight — I’m stuck and they have no way to help me.  That’s their brand promise – the promise they’re supposed to keep: that they are better equipped than anyone else to get me where I want to go.  But it’s even bigger than that — underlying their promise is their commitment to serve as the transportation infrastructure of our country. 

The challenge is that it’s hard shift customers brand loyalty to major carriers until someone else can fulfill that promise — or creates a new, more compelling promise — has have Southwest and Jet Blue, for example, in their regions.  But for the most part, American will keep its customers because there isn’t much choice.

In the May Atlantic, James Fallows writes ruefully of his June 2001 prediction of the rise off new, accessible, low-cost “air taxi” services … but maybe their time is coming.  Running an airline is a pretty capital intensive business to get into, but these services are slowly figuring out the engineering, software and mathematics of making an air taxi service profitable. 

My question is: if the big airline brand promise has failed, what promises can they keep?  What part of that bigger promise can they fulfill, and what part will they “renegotiate” with the public?  And…what’s next?  




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