Mixed Signals: Giving Grace to the Airline Industry

Mixed Signals is Erin Straza’s weekly musing about marketing miscellany in advertising, branding, and messaging.

Bring up the topic of air travel, and you are likely to get plenty of harrowing tales about long lines, unpleasant food, white-knuckle turbulence, and frustrating airline employees. Air travel, in all its uncontrollable glory, is one of those first-world blessings that many people love to hate.

Travel is stressful because travelers must yield to the almighty airline their schedules, their preferences, and their presumed safety. We like control. In our regular, daily, determined-by-self living, we have some. In travel, we have much less. And we don’t like it.

So when we are stressed, we find someone or something to blame or focus upon. Airlines receive the brunt of our discomfort, as we sigh about gate changes and bemoan delays. We want the airline to operate as planned, without variation. We hold airlines to a standard that is completely unrealistic, but blame them for not measuring up.

Delta Airlines has released a new TV spot as part of its “Keep Climbing” campaign. Titled “Lines” and narrated by Donald Sutherland, this commercial addresses our tendency to expect perfection in air travel:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tl2JztZwstc&w=600&rel=0

Besides the pleasant cadence and soothing tones of Sutherland’s voice over, the script is genius. It gives the airline industry a personality lift, moving it from robotic and heartless to caring and responsive. How can we be angry with 80,000 people who are all working to make our particular flight — with its unique group of passengers, weather patterns, and business environment — a success? The script reminds us that:

In this business, there are no straight lines. Only the twists and turns of an unpredictable industry. The passengers change. The gates change. Government regulations change. Oil peeks and plummets. And let’s not even get started on the weather. The fact is no two flights are ever the same, no matter how many times we’ve accomplished them in the past.

With that list of uncontrollable factors, Delta’s creative team has successfully tapped into our wells of empathy, creating some common ground where we can relate to its difficulties. We can relate because we have jobs with high expectations in ever-changing conditions. We know how difficult that can be. And that prompts us to extend grace.

Grace is needed in such situations, because no one is perfect. Not even the airline industry.

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  • Geoffrey R.

    Erin,

    I will offer no grace when it comes to getting my flight in one piece from airport to airport: On that count, I expect perfection. But as long as that happens, quite frankly, I consider it a good trip. I don’t know if people will respond well to an ad that acknowledges the chaos of airport travel, but hopefully they do; travelers, in my experience, can be downright rude, but I think they can also be charitable, and hopefully that side will win out.

    As a side note, my wife and I have both flown Delta in the past months, and everyone leg of our one-stop flights to and from the airports was on-time or early. So their ad may even be a bit modest.

    Geoffrey