Kim Penstone

Airlines 'Mr Price with wings'

2005-08-04 13:24

The recent fracas over at SAA and all the resultant publicity about the shocking state of the national carrier's public relations and communications arms, reminded me of a thought that I've wanted to document for a long time.

It started on a flight to France (which ended up taking almost two days), and crystallised when I arrived home to the launch of the latest TV ad for SAA, and it goes something like this:

Airlines like to think that they're a glamour product. They pretend to themselves, to their shareholders and to the public at large that they're the high-flying equivalent of Coco Chanel, but when it comes down to it, they're nothing but Mr Price with wings.

(No offence to Mr Price, which comes a close second to Woolworths in the stakes for the highest label count in my closet!)

And it's time they admitted it.

Let me explain.

First and foremost, if you take away the destination, there's nothing glamorous about flying.

If we had to equate the average economy class seat with a form of ground-level transportation, chances are it would fall somewhere just above a minibus taxi (and then only because it has seatbelts and on-board toilets).

Flying 'not glamorous'

There is very little that's glamorous about having to wrap your legs around your ears and constantly shuffle butt cheeks in order to avoid numb-bum syndrome, while at the same time trying to avoid too much skin-on-skin contact with the man sitting next to you who's breath you could smell as it advanced down the aisle ahead of him.

There is also very little that's glamorous about airline food, or the need to take bite-sized chunks of what the stewardess assured you was chicken in shifts with your neighbour, so as to avoid the afore-mentioned skin-on-skin contact.

There is even less glamour involved in the free booze on board, especially as your neighbour gets so drunk that he falls asleep with his offending mouth open, pointing dangerously in your direction.

And I know that there's no need for me to go into any detail on the glamour involved in contorting your body into previously unheard of shapes in order to climb into a cupboard neatly disguised as a toilet... (or, if you happen to be an exceptionally lucky traveller, the glamour of sitting right next to the afore-mentioned toilets, for 14 hours on the trot, in the seat that doesn't recline.)

The bottom line is that airlines are a means to an end. And they should be brave enough to admit as much in their communications.

The SAA spat

Take the recent SAA spot for example.

You know the one. Two chaps, sitting next to each other on what appears to be an international flight, waking up and stretching their arms as if they're in a Kelloggs commercial and they got it all last night?

If you did that in economy class, you'd hit the guy sitting at the other window seat in the eye closest to the window, and he wouldn't think it was such a great morning.

And then there's the small talk. "Good morning. Sleep well?" Maybe I'm just unfriendly, but you'll be lucky if you get a grunt out of me at 3AM when the lights are turned up and the hostess pulls my seat into the upright position in order to feed me coffee that could be coffee or tea or even orange juice given the taste of plastic that predominates and my inability to get to the toilet to clean my teeth due to aforementioned neighbour sleeping off booze.

Of course, in the ad, everyone slept well. Another fallacy. Do you know anyone who has ever slept well on a plane?

I'm married to the kind of guy who regularly falls asleep at dinner parties, at dinner tables, with one hand still nestling round his beer, and his eyes still open, (and often, I have to say, his mouth still moving - although he does tend to stray from the topic at hand) and even he struggles to snatch an hour or so aboard a plane.

Ms Nice Lady

Then there's the final straw. The "real nice lady at check in". Well, maybe I fly the wrong airlines, or perhaps I have one of those "hey, I'm a sucker, why don't you take out the fact that you hate your job on me" signs tied around my neck, but "nice" is not an adjective I'd choose to describe the average "lady" at check-in.

If it were up to me (and I'm guessing that SAA is currently scratching me off their list of people to consult for advertising strategies at this point), I'd call it like it is.

If I were an airline, I'd say: Hey, we know our seats are too small and too hard and too uncomfortable to sleep in.

We know our food sucks, and we know our service isn't up to much (after all, the stewards are also just looking for a cheap way to travel). We might lose your baggage, make you miss your next flight, or even leave you stranded on foreign shores when our entire staff complement goes on strike and we haven't thought up a plan B.

But the good news is that it's all in the interests of lowering your ticket price. We cram more people in so we can charge you less. We serve crap food so that we can charge you less. We invest in poor staff so we can charge you less.

(I'd be inclined to avoid mentioning buying planes past their sell-by date so we can charge you less. I'm thinking that might not work so well!)

For the vast majority of us (those who can't afford to fly any class other than straight old economy), there is only one differentiator between carriers - the price tag.

Because when it comes to flying, I don't expect to be able to stretch my arms or my legs (or even my pinky finger). I don't expect Michelin quality food, nor first-class service. All I want is to arrive at my destination (preferably in one piece) with enough cash in my pocket to enjoy my holiday.

And if I ever find an airline brave enough to admit that that's what they're offering, I'll be a customer for life (or at least until someone undercuts their price!)

  • Kim Penstone recently swore she'd never travel Air France again after her last experience, but in the interests of saving a buck, she's about to fly with them again. She used to think she was more principled than this, but she's over that now.
  • If you're more interested in the serious side of marketing and advertising, go to

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