Airline Image: Do Passengers Care about Funny, Snarky, Inspirational Ads?

Not-so-old-timers can remember back to the days before airline de-regulation and when most flights cost pretty much the same so image was important. It helped potential passengers tell one from the other and which they’d like to fly.

FareCompare’s image: Find cheap flights fast

Good Old Days of Airline Image

Think of then-upstart Southwest’s hot pants-wearing flight attendants or soaring slogans like “Delta is ready when you are.” The image told you that Southwest didn’t stand on ceremony and would also scramble for your hard-earned buck while you knew Delta would give you a certain level of passenger pampering (or so we wanted to believe). Let’s take a look at three current airline images – and what if anything if anything they mean to passengers and if they help an airline’s bottom line.

Meet the crazy guys who run your favorite airline

Virgin America: Cool and Hip

The San Francisco-based airline is refreshingly off-beat. Some examples:

  • A recent gate information sign at SFO featured updates on how Virgin America planned to speed things up once a delayed plane arrived: “A rabid badger will be released at the rear of the aircraft to encourage people to exit forward quickly.”
  • Las Vegas-arriving passengers have been greeted by a sign saying, “Let’s get our story straight: We’re all in Cincinnati, right?”
  • Virgin America decorates a plane with San Francisco Giant player Brian Wilson’s signature beard (and the Giants go on to win the World Series)

How’s it working: Virgin America has a lot of fans and routinely tops “best airline” lists, but the jury’s still out since the carrier – which began flying back in 2007 – has reportedly yet to post a profitable year. Also on the plus side: the airline always gets glowing reports about its excellent customer service.

Southwest – more fees coming

Southwest: Growing Bigger, Growing Up

Southwest’s ads used to mirror the fun you could have onboard like listening to a rapping flight attendant or playing along with the crew in a spirited game of ‘who has the ugliest driver’s license photo.’ Maybe you can still do that, but Southwest’s fun-and-games ads featuring regular Joe baggage handlers touting free bags have been replaced by a commercial that evokes nothing so much as the soaring grandeur of ads by the likes of Delta or United.

True, the once small airline is now the biggest domestic carrier in the U.S. – but to air a commercial with nary a mention of free bags? Now that’s a change.

How’s it working: Southwest, a longtime favorite of flyers, has also been a longtime money-maker and remains profitable, though according to a January media report, its “fourth-quarter earnings fell by nearly half on higher spending for fuel, labor and maintenance.” Yes, the airline is growing up and there are growing pains, but it’s still a favorite. Still has free bags, too. For now.

Crazy little airline that breaks all the rules

Spirit: Snarky and Cheap Outsider

Spirit’s sales demonize everyone from disgraced politicians like former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (“Slammer Sale!”) to Secret Service members allegedly caught up in a prostitution scandal (“Bigger Bang for Your Buck!”). They’ve also targeted women in general with a sale proclaiming “Check Out Our Double-Ds!” which supposedly meant deep discounts. In a word, they are shameless. And wildly popular.

How’s it working: Spirit is making money. Even some who claim to hate the airline say they will still fly Spirit from time to time because the prices are simply too cheap to pass up.

More from Rick Seaney:

Snarky, Hip and Inspirational: The Real Story Behind Three Airline Brands

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Published: March 28, 2013