There’s an interesting brand story unfolding in the airline industry: the customers are driving the brand. Airline passengers are pushing to raise service standards and improve airline/passenger relationships, while the airlines trade group is resisting them at every turn.
The real issue: depth of brand commitments
The surface issue is a highly publicized charter of “passenger rights” for passengers stuck on airplanes delayed for long periods on the tarmac. The real issue is the depth of brand commitments that airlines are prepared to make to passengers. While the airline industry has played hardball on the issue, at least one airline (JetBlue) is creating new brand avenues to position itself much closer to customers.
Airlines vs. passengers
The recent news is that the Airline Transport Association (ATA), the airline trade group, successfully challenged a New York law that required airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers trapped in a plane delayed on the ground longer than three hours. (Currently, airlines have no such obligation.) The ATA challenged the state law on the grounds that only the federal government can regulate air travel. A federal appeals court agreed, and rejected the law. Other states are considering similar legislation—or at least they were until the appellate court ruling.
Who is holding passengers back?
The airlines make a good point in that it makes sense to govern them with a single set of laws, not a state-by-state patchwork. Fair enough; let federal laws prevail. But are the airlines ready to propose a passenger rights alternative at the federal level? Something to protect the industry brand and prevent negative brand experiences. An airline proposal might even specify general standards for passenger treatment, to weed out the low performers who give the industry a bad name.
No ATA proposals
The answer is unfortunately, “no.” No ATA proposal seems forthcoming. In fact, the the ATA has opposed such legislation at the federal level, too, with considerable success. As USA Today has noted:
. . . Measures moving through Congress to mandate better airline behavior have been so weakened that they are almost meaningless.
The airline industry, which opposes new mandates, has lobbied with great success. While it can’t seem to scare up a bag of peanuts to feed stranded fliers, it coughed up millions to fuel lawmakers’ campaigns and to finance its lobbying activities. . . .
. . . If airlines put as much effort into meeting customers’ needs as they do into lobbying against consumer laws, then perhaps there might be fewer horror stories.
Horror stories and the brand
We’ve all heard the horror stories. Hundreds of airline passengers are stuck for hours on an aircraft delayed on the tarmac. Passengers can’t leave. Food runs out. Water is scarce. Toilets overflow, and fresh air dwindles. In such abhorrent conditions, passengers suffer, airline brands take a serious hit, and brand trust evaporates.
It’s these horror stories that helped spark the “passenger rights” movement, and continue to fuel it. Since the airline industry doesn’t forthrightly address them, more horror stories are inevitable. They’re brand disasters waiting to happen.
The brand implications of “passenger rights”
The issue of “passenger rights” never would have emerged had airlines (and the industry) done a better job of managing their brand relations with passengers. The rise of “passenger rights” as a public and political issue is really a sign of a general brand breakdown at the airline level. It signifies that passengers can’t trust airlines to do what’s right. (Think about that for a moment.) It steals brand initiative from the airlines themselves, and it puts airline brands on the defensive, where they’re in no position to create new value.
The airline industry pays a high price for not addressing the “passenger rights” movement head-on with creative brand programs. The movement magnifies every airline misstep through the media, requiring ever larger cadres of PR and lawyers to contain the media fallout.
A strategy of low brand innovation
The airline industry backed itself into this corner by following a strategy of low brand innovation. This is a strategy sometimes found in declining industries that devote their resources to lobbying politicians for concessions, rather than creating new customer value. For the airlines, this is a strategy designed to protect less agile airlines from market challenges. As a strategy it can be “made to work,” only because passengers are captive customers: they have no choice but to fly to their destinations.