Top 10 airline marketing failures

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Failure is useful for a myriad of reasons. It can be interesting, amusing or even a teaching moment. At the very least, learning from someone else’s mistake can often be an entertaining form of education. 

Airlines have been no stranger to their fair share of marketing failures. Many of these were bold attempts to adopt a new strategy, reach a new audience or present a new product in a, let’s say, more unconventional way. While such endeavours are admirable, quite often these statements fall flat or even a little foul. 

Many things can lead to a marketing mishap, including botched implementation, unexpected circumstances or just a simple, old-fashioned mistake when making judgements about the market. Consequences can also vary, with some companies managing to survive the onslaught of bad publicity. But others fail to weather the storm and end up going out of business. 

It’s worth noting that AeroTime has limited this list to one failure per airline, otherwise it would be dominated by a few older and bigger carriers. We have also tried to include some of the lesser-known mistakes. One thing to be kept in mind though, that criteria for such listings is subjective. So, don’t be upset if your favorite marketing blunder did not make the cut. However, the comment section below will gladly accept your submission. 

So, here are 10 of the most impressive marketing failures for your enjoyment, you monsters. 

Honorary mention: The Hoover free flights promotion

Hoover is not an airline, it is a British home appliance manufacturer, best known for vacuum cleaners. Yet, in the 1990s, the company became a subject of ridicule during an aviation-related marketing stunt of such epic proportions that many people might be upset if we failed to mention it here.

In 1992, and as a result of diminishing sales, Hoover launched a new marketing campaign declaring that anyone who purchased a vacuum cleaner for over £100 would receive two free airline tickets. Initially, the campaign featured only European destinations but, galvanized by early success, Hoover included transatlantic flights as a possibility. So, what was the problem? Well, a ticket for such a flight was often worth more than a vacuum. 

So, the process of receiving free tickets was intentionally made as convoluted as possible, but even that did not help. The company lost millions, provoked a massive backlash and, after a change in leadership, was sold to an Italian conglomerate. Presumably (and luckily), the airlines whose tickets Hoover gave away did not suffer any repercussions.

10. Qantas’ mistimed call for feedback

In comparison with others this is a small failure. In fact, it is the size of a single tweet. But it just goes to show that even a few well-crafted words appearing at the wrong time can lead to damaging consequences.

In October 2011, Qantas launched a contest, which invited its customers to describe their “dream luxury in-flight experience” in a single tweet. In return, the airline promises a selection of small gifts for those who could produce the most impressive charade of flattery.

Unfortunately, at the time of the tweet, the airline’s entire fleet was grounded due to union protests. Thousands of passengers were stranded, many of them struggling to get their refunds. The Twitter thread was swarmed by angry travelers who did not mince their words when expressing their frustration with what was supposed to be a “dream experience” but, in reality, had become a nightmare. Dissatisfied employees also joined in the tirade of complaints. 

So, a contest intended to praise the airline turned into a barrage of insults, each one wittier than the other. 

9. Braniff’s accidental nudist call

A mistake in translation can be awkward, funny, insulting or all of the above. Braniff, a now-defunct American carrier (at different times also known as Braniff Airways, Braniff Airlines, Braniff International and others), learned this the hard way during the late-1980s.

Positioning itself as a luxury-oriented airline, Braniff liked to advertise its first-class amenities, such as leather seats. In 1987, the company launched a marketing campaign with the slogan: “fly in leather”, and ran it on many American Spanish-language radio stations.

The problem was, “el cuero”, which is Spanish for “in leather”,  is also slang for naked. So, for quite some time Braniff kept inviting their Spanish-speaking customers to fly naked, a blunder that some interpreted as an intentional attention-grabbing stunt. But others found it quite distasteful and improper. In any case, at the time the airline was already experiencing problems and filed for bankruptcy just two years later.

8. Song’s marketing strategy (in its entirety)

In 2003, and jealous of JetBlue’s (JBLU) monumental success, Delta decided to launch its own low-cost offshoot. But the new airline, named Song, could not be just any lowcoster, it had to be something more. A trend, a lifestyle, a call to action for all the young, hip and environmentally-conscious adults who wanted to have an experience instead of a flight. 

But, as it turns out, simply throwing every buzzword into a bucket does not a marketing strategy make. The airline’s message became buried under its trendy lexicon. Its multiple side-gigs, designed to complement the core business by surrounding a customer with Song-themed stuff (from a TV show to a boutique chain), overtook the airline and customer struggled to understand company’s cryptic messaging and adverts. 

Song was also launched during a time when the industry was still reeling from 9/11, which certainly did not help matters. But the company’s misguided and, at times, staggering expenses, including in-flight entertainment systems, a first for a low-cost carrier, siphoned money at a stupendous rate. And so, in 2006, Delta decided to close Song for good. Insert your own music-themed pun here.

7. Ryanair’s toilets (and much, much more)

Several Top 10 lists could be filled with Ryanair’s dodgy marketing decisions alone. The only reason why this European low-cost carrier features low on this list is because the airline was not damaged by its multiple failures. People might curse Ryanair and people may laugh at it, but they still choose to fly with the airline.

We could feature the “Red Hot Fares & Crew” ads, viewed by many as poor taste and exploitative and we could also mention the “Jab and Go” campaign, which somehow managed to enrage both sides of the vaccine “debate”. We could even mention the airline’s long-running attempt to fit their aircraft with standing seats and present them as a good idea or refer to almost every word Ryanair’s audacious CEO Michael O’Leary has ever uttered in public. 

But the most impressive, or at least the most well-remembered due to its recency, is the Ryanair toilet scandal. It doesn’t involve a marketing team as it was simply an attempt by an airline to put fewer bathrooms on its aircraft to save weight and costs. Monetizing the few remaining toilets would encourage passengers to use them less frequently, leading to fewer lines and further cost savings.

But when the attempt to implement the policy was met with resentment, the airline began to make fun of it, doubling down on toilet humor. O’Leary became involved with his trademarked rudeness and said: “if someone wanted to pay £5 to go to the toilet, I’d carry them myself. I would wipe their bums for a fiver”. The best thing? The whole debacle is still ongoing. The paid toilet policy is yet to be implemented, so it may produce even more drama in the future.

But is it a failure if an airline is not damaged by bad publicity? That’s one of life’s great mysteries.

6. VietJet’s bikini shenanigans

Here is another case where we can debate marketing stunts as experiencing a win or a being a failure. VietJet Air, a Vietnamese low-cost carrier, began to receive attention with its in-flight ‘bikini shows’ in 2012. The shows featured scantily-clad flight attendants, an image that has been utilized by the airline ever since.

In 2018, another ‘bikini show’ was organised for the Vietnamese football team. The stunt was branded obscene and inappropriate by the public. Social media users organized a sizable boycott and the company’s stock took a massive hit.  CEO Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao had to publicly apologize and say that the show was somehow an “improvised performance” and not a part of a long-running marketing campaign. 

VietJet’s image appeared to be tarnished forever. But, despite the odds, the company recovered shortly afterwards and generated profit in 2018, 2019 and even the apocalyptic 2020, becoming one of a few airlines that managed to do so.

5. Joon the “How Do You Do Fellow Kids”

In 2017, Air France created an airline honed for a single market: millennials.

After researching every stereotype about their target demographic, the company produced an image that incorporated a pair of large hipster glasses, rad lingo, smoothies, cotton tops and lots of faffing about. The airline claimed to be almost everything “a rooftop bar, a personal assistant, a fashion designer…and also an airline”. 

Air France folded it in 2019. Some say poor marketing was not the reason the company was hugely unprofitable. Others say that the service was actually good. But the public’s reaction speaks for itself. Joon was ridiculed by everybody who had the ability to leave an anonymous comment somewhere. 

The company frustrated people with its confusing branding and became a source of endless bafflement for older folks. Unfortunately, some of those older folks were also Air France’s investors. 

4. Malaysia Airlines’ bucket list

Malaysia Airlines will certainly go down in history as one of the most unfortunate companies. In 2014, it was struck by two massive tragedies. First, the disappearance of Flight 370 over the Indian Ocean and then Flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine. In total, over 500 people perished and the only association with the brand that anyone had was one of catastrophe.

In the middle of leadership changes and restructuring, and in dire need of rebranding, Malaysia Airlines launched a streak of poorly communicated and highly controversial marketing campaigns. It’s advertisements portrayed travelers as angels (a big “OOF” considering the tragedies) and began tweeting a series of motivational quotes that were a touch tasteless to say the least (“If you fell down yesterday, don’t stay down. Get up as quick as you can”; “Want to go somewhere, but don’t know where?”).

And then it launched a campaign, which immediately caught the attention of the global media. Dubbed ‘My ultimate bucket list’, customers were encouraged to share the destinations where they most wanted to visit. 

It’s highly likely that the Malaysian marketing team were not aware of the meaning of a ‘bucket list’, which refers to things a person would like to do before they ‘kick the bucket’. Taking Malaysain Airlines’ tragic history into account, this was not the greatest move. 

As the first angry tweets were published, the company altered the name of the competition and apologized profusely. However, the damage was already done. 

Considering the state of the company at the time, a misstep that would have likely derailed another airline, barely caused a scratch. 

3. United’s violent incidents (A lot of them). 

By the start of 2020, United Airlines had become strongly associated with violence. The connection was so engrained, one could think it was the result of a deliberate marketing campaign so powerful, that the world’s militaries would line up to hire the same PR firm.

It could be said that it all began in 2017 when the company’s crew tried to forcibly remove a passenger from an overbooked flight. The passenger resisted, a scuffle ensued and an image of a bloodied, beaten customer being dragged away by security went viral. 

Que an apology from the airline’s CEO, which seemed as half-hearted as it was brief. Then, people began to remember that the incident was not the first time that United had brutalized and humiliated passengers who had resisted being ousted from an overbooked flight.

United’s unsympathetic and violent image was further cemented by a tragic incident when a dog died on a flight due to what was perceived as indifference and cruelty from the company’s cabin crew. United tried to claim full responsibility and apologize as sincerely as possible, but it was too late. A slew of events and poor communication could hardly be explained by “a few bad apples” and the company’s image remains tainted to this day.

Now, is it a marketing failure? Strictly speaking, no. It is simply a case of terrible crisis management. But the scale and intensity is almost unrivalled in the aviation industry, which, no doubt, is a result of a flawed communication policy. In other words, United has consistently failed to avoid association with abusing its customers. Which pretty much equates to deliberate action.

2. British Airways’ attempts at avant-garde 

In 1994, British Airways changed its livery. The most notable aspect of the change was a series of new tailfin designs made by various famous artists from around the world.

The majority of those pieces were, to put it mildly, slightly unconventional. Barely anybody understood the designs and even fewer found them attractive.

Not only was the artwork disliked by some of the more conservative Brits, but its motivation was also called into question. The variety of designs was supposed to represent the diversity of cultures through BA’s network, but it could also be interpreted as an attempt at patronization and colonialism. 

The most famous expression of this sentiment came from none other than UK’s former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Upon seeing a model of an aircraft with a new design, she exclaimed “absolutely terrible!”, pulled a piece of tissue paper from her ever-present handbag, and covered the tail of the offending Boeing 747.

1. American Airlines AAirpass

This marketing disaster is not famous for the damage to American Airline’s reputation, but for its sheer monetary cost and a miscalculation that allowed it to happen.

AAirpass was a frequent flyers program launched by American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) in the early 1980s. The idea was simple: for a low price of $250,000 (approximately $747,000 in today’s money) a customer would get a lifetime of free first-class travel on American’ planes. For an additional $150,000 (approx. $448,000) they could take a companion.

Seems like a lot of money for some free flights, right? Wrong. A lot of people ordered AAirpasses (66, according to some reports) and, as it turns out, frequent travelers tend to spend a lot more on flights during their lifetime. American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) really should have known better.

Before the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, the AAirpas debacle (although new memberships had not been taken since 1994) drained from the company’s coffers $1 million annually. This did not include the many lawsuits American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) faced while trying to revoke some AAirpasses. 

The scale of the failure became widely-known and American was a laughing stock. The company is also an example frequently shown at marketing schools all over the world. It turns out that, before committing to long-term marketing programs, it is important to calculate long-term costs. Extremely important.

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