News & Views

Flying the friendly skies?

by Contagious Team
Then you’re probably in Middle East or Asia

The recent 2014 World Airline Award list is dominated by Asian and Middle Eastern airlines, with Lufthansa just about crawling into last place in the top 10. There’s not a single American airline on the list. Contagious' strategic lead in Asia Pacific Tara Hirebet considers the reasons behind their dominance.

It’s not what you would expect when you think back to the golden days of Pan Am in the US and the glamour of European airlines.

What it does suggest is that regions like Asia and the Middle East are climbing and dominating the category (a familiar story in many industries and categories today) and leaving “the West and the rest” a little behind. 

Budgets definitely play a role. And Asia and the Middle East are at a clear advantage. These are high growth markets with a mass of new (not just repeat) consumers coming on board and flying. This means more money for airlines to re-invest, so they’re not just able to offer the latest technology and plane models, but often able to do it first across a larger proportion of their fleet.

That’s priceless in terms of spread of PR and brand impression. Singapore Airlines, for example, in third place, was the first in the world to fly the A380 back in October 2007, while fourth-placed Emirates, was the second. Emirates also offered showers in First Class suites and the world’s first in-flight mobile phone service on an A380. 

Money aside, though, the real difference cited seems to be service. And the fact that service is especially key on an airline should be a no brainer.

Asian airlines seem to understand a consumer’s personal context in that situation – that flying is a service EXPERIENCE and every touch point is making it a good or a bad one. And that the most important brand experience is actually via the flight attendant – the brand ambassador.

American Airlines is known for their grumpy and frumpy flight attendants that bark at you. Yes, we can blame pensions and equal age rights, but the lack of young talent suggests that today’s generations don’t want to work for an airline. This is because there is no Pan Am glamour left in being a part of United or American Airlines. In Asia, though, that isn't the case. Airlines are still seen as a “national or country symbol.” There is also a glamour to the actual role and associated high standards of presentation on Asian and Middle Eastern airlines, which again reflects well on the brand and makes it attractive to younger job seekers.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) and airlines in Korea are the best known, if not the most controversial, examples of this. It is considered an achievement to make it through these airlines’ interview processes, which include skin checks under white light to determine skin clarity (including scars on your neck, hands and back). Asian and Middle Eastern airlines also have weight limits and other strict rules. If an SIA girl gains weight (the rumour is around five pounds only), she is grounded and put in an office role until she loses it.

Emirates puts attendants on diets if they gain weight and men and women are required to get facials and manicures. At one point, they were not allowed to be seen smoking, drinking or wearing anything but heels when in uniform. At SIA, attendants are also given a personal make-up colour guide by a grooming consultant, within a company regulated lipstick, nail and eyeshadow palette. Asiana’s attendants can’t wear glasses or trousers (they must only wear skirts). This may seem cultist or extreme, but it means these top-voted airlines have understood visual branding. The more they control the appearance of their ambassadors, the more controlled and consistent a brand impression they deliver.

From there it comes down to training and passenger service. European airlines may get food style and service better – there is an elegance to it. And American airlines may get friendly banter right. But it's not always consistent. Asian attendants can seem more formal and textbook in their manners and delivery, but that spells a certain level of consistency that comes out of long and rigorous training programmes (15 weeks or more). Singapore Airlines, for example, actually teaches flight attendants body language during training. They are taught to lower themselves just below a passenger’s eye level when speaking to them at certain times, as it makes the passengers feel ‘served.’ And if you look for it, you will notice this gesture on board any flight you take with them.

Finally, it’s about how consistently you experience that service regardless of your flying status. This is also where Asian and Middle Eastern airlines get it right. It makes sense to focus on those most likely to complain and kill them with good service and etiquette. And that’s definitely Economy class.

Those consistently travelling Economy are really the ones experiencing the discomfort of being on a plane compared to a Business or a First Class passenger. They are also the larger and generally more dissatisfied consumer class, who are more likely to gang up in solidarity on a single comment and turn it into threads of complaints about a brand (i.e. spread the damage). 

Asian and Middle Eastern airlines know that when it comes to their regions, the biggest growing market is this emerging mass middle class. So they make sure that they are consistently polite, well mannered and offer them a high quality service. They also know this is an upwardly mobile class that will become their next generation of higher paying Business and First Class passengers.

In contrast, European and, even more so, American airlines still seem stuck in 'blue blood' style hierarchies. They focus on Business and First Class, where they are really just reinforcing an already decent brand impression and experience. However, they openly overlook Economy passengers, making them feel like they are missing out, or deserve only the basics because they're in the cheap seats. 

The good news is that service is an achievable and often affordable fix. If European and American airlines start using some of these new world tactics, together with that original old world charm, there's no reason they can’t climb way back up the charts in the coming years.