On a high note: the role of boarding music in branding and the flight experience

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What is the first thing you notice when boarding an aircraft?

Perhaps you scan the cabin to gauge how full the flight is or you catch a whiff of in-flight meals being heated in the galley. Or maybe you focus on the temperature of the cabin or pick up on the chatter inside the aircraft.

But what about the music being played when you are boarding? Do you notice it at all? Do you think it’s a welcoming melody? Or is it loud and jarring, adding to the stress of traveling?

The importance of boarding music

Music gives customers a lasting impression. That’s why the world of retail has been studying its behavioral effects on customers for decades. In an article looking at music and customer behavior, music licensing company Audiosocket noted that music can be used in highly specific ways to affect both what shoppers buy and how much they’re willing to pay.

An airline’s boarding music plays an integral part in setting the tone for the journey and elevating customer experience. 

So it makes sense for airlines to invest in creating music that will help establish a positive experience and encourage passengers to be repeat customers.

Setting the emotion

A study into music, memory and emotion published by the Journal of Biology in 2008 showed that the limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions and controlling memory, “lights” up when our ears perceive music. 

That’s why most airlines opt for melodies that can soothe travelers who already feel stressed and anxious from airport procedures, and flying itself. This is particularly helpful when flying these days, given that air rage incidents have tripled since 2019

Some airlines also use the same tranquil and calm boarding music as hold music for their customer service hotline. And though it’s never officially stated, the choice of hold music can alleviate the frustration of long wait times during those calls.

A perfect example of how an airline’s choice of music has helped a customer keep their cool can be seen with Delta Air Lines. In May 2023, Delta customer Maria D’Ambrosio decided to use her time creatively while waiting for an airline representative to pick up the line. 

D’Ambrosio flexed her musical skills, playing a french horn alongside Delta Air Lines’ hold music “My Time to Fly”composed by Harriet Goldberg.

D’Ambrosio entitled her YouTube video, “When Delta Air Lines hold music hits just right”.

Goldberg considers herself a “late bloomer” in the field of music, starting out in social work before pursuing a career in music when she was in her late 40s. 

Now dubbed the “Queen of Hold Music”, Goldberg’s 2011 composition “My Time to Fly” is now used not just by Delta, but Capital One,JetBlue, Costco, Nasdaq, the Kansas Unemployment Office, Sagami Railway in Japan, Dartmoor Prison in England, and even The New York Times, who did a feature on Goldberg. 

Music as a branding tool for the airline

Music has a way of evoking emotions in people, and brands take this opportunity to form an emotional connection with their target audience. 

Travel is also emotive. People travel to connect with loved ones, to go on a long-desired trip, to find themselves, or to simply take a break. So airlines have long used audio branding to create a distinct identity and to evoke emotion in customers.

Alaska Airlines’ principal in-flight entertainment and connectivity product manager David Scotland is in charge of the airline’s audio branding, which includes boarding music. 

Scotland told the Washington Post in 2022 that to align with Alaska Airlines’ brand identity he avoids techno pop, Top 40 songs and classical music, and seeks out “indie songs from a variety of genres” instead. 

According to Scotland, Alaska changes its music and playlist every month, and there are various factors to keep in mind when picking music throughout the year, such as seasonality. Scotland said that more mellow and chill songs are played during winter, and more upbeat selections are played during summer.

In choosing boarding music, Scotland said that the music cannot have too many pauses in it, nor can it get too quiet or loud. 

“We never want the music to take center stage at any time during the boarding process. We don’t want it to be a distraction. It needs to complement what’s going on in the aircraft environment,” Scotland told the Washington Post.

Another airline to invest in music as part of its identity is Australian flag carrier Qantas. 

In August 2021, when Australian borders had still not reopened due to the pandemic, the airline launched a series of branding campaigns to retain brand name familiarity with its target audience. 

The campaign included a Qantas soundtrack created especially for the airline by Australian composer Haydn Walker and guitarist Nathan Cavaleri and is the boarding and in-flight default music on all Qantas domestic and international flights.

Qantas also made the soundtrack and playlist available for free on Spotify and Apple Music. 

Music as a way to transport customers

Music not only has the power to emotionally move people, it also has the ability to transport people to certain places.

Some airlines use its signature music not just in boarding and call wait times, but also in airport lounges or ticket offices. This allows the customer to feel as though they are already traveling without even stepping foot in an aircraft. 

An example of this is Austrian Airlines’ use of music not just to transport its customers but to also introduce the country’s culture and history. 

In 2021, Austrian Airlines launched The Blue Danube Waltz by Austrian composer Johann Strauss II as its boarding music. 

The airline said that the Viennese Waltz has always stood for Austrian culture. The boarding music was launched at the height of the pandemic, a time when the airline said that the waltz fell silent due to the restrictions. The airline introduced the boarding music with the hashtag #waltzbacktotheworld and still uses it today.

The music also prompts passengers to think about the pleasure of waltzing into the aircraft, rather than just going through the travel motions.

Hawaiian Airlines is another airline that truly transports customers to destinations through its music. The airline recently launched a lineup of boarding music and videos for its upcoming 95th anniversary.

The airline is showcasing showcasing a playlist of 10 newly composed boarding tracks, and has so far released seven, with plans to release another three during the latter months of 2023.

All of the boarding songs feature local artists that play Hawaii’s signature melodic strings and crooning that take listeners to the islands, but “Alika” by Pōmaikaʻi Keawe and Mālie Lyman  particularly stands out. 

While the song makes use of the ukulele, a Hawaiian instrument, it also combines the use of steel guitar, giving it a slightly edgy twang.The sustained high notes in the song also make it stand out from the customary softer notes in Hawaiian music.

“Our in-flight music aims to evoke a certain emotion and elegance. We don’t want songs that are too crazy or upbeat because we don’t want our guests to feel rushed or stressed in the aircraft. We want to make sure they feel comfortable and welcomed,” Cassidee Owens, Hawaiian Airlines brand manager said in a statement.   

Not all airlines make use of music to take travelers to its country of origin. In 2015, Etihad Airways used boarding music as a way to transport customers to a world created by the airline for its campaign.

When Etihad Airways launched its global brand campaign “Flying Reimagined”, it featured luxuries and amenities never before seen in any airline such as a passenger’s own apartment in an Airbus A380 that came with its own in-flight butler.

The campaign had the stunning and elegant Nicole Kidman as its ambassador, who perfectly exuded the airline’s brand ethos of culture, style, luxury and innovation.

In line with its campaign, Etihad created boarding music that was also “reimagined” due to its distinctiveness.

The airline commissioned Sydney-based Ramesh Sathiah to compose the music, and the soundtrack was conducted by Roger Benedict of the Sydney Scoring Orchestra.

The piece of music is aptly called a soundtrack because it sounds more like a cinematic score when compared to the usual boarding music.

Musician Juanito Pascual described the soundtrack perfectly in a SimpliFlying issue about airline music, calling the composition “a study in mismatching content and context” that contains interesting elements and complexities. 

He said: “There is, however, a surprising recurrence of some rather dissonant musical phrases. Some notes would seem better suited to a movie scene designed to arouse tension and cue the listener to be a bit uneasy. Adding to this is the use of some rhythms that would seemingly connote suspense.”

Pascual also said that some harmonic movements of the composition would seem better paired with a situation where ambiguity or uncertainty was the intended emotional impact. 

And this is where Etihad certainly blended its ‘reimagined’ campaign with the music. It’s as though the airline is asking customers to leave the familiar notion of flying out the door, and prepare for a reimagined way of flying.

As Nicole Kidman narrates at the end of the ad: “Because their goal isn’t to improve what’s been done before, but to totally reimagine it.”

Etihad now uses a different composition, one that sounds more like the usual boarding music. However, it’s undeniable that the 2015 ‘Flying Reimagined’ score is far more unique and memorable. 

Music to evoke nostalgia

Some airlines commission musicians to compose music specifically for its brand, and some, like Alaska Airlines, change its boarding music every month / season. 

However, some carriers stick to music that has worked for decades. 

In 1989, British Airways launched a television commercial branding itself as the “world’s favorite airline”.  The ad had an avant-pop vibe that featured groups of people coming together to form a smile. 

The music used in the ad was “Aria on Air”, a modern adaptation of the soprano duet “Flower Duet” for the French opera Lakme. It was arranged for the airline by British musician Malcolm McLaren and Greek composer Yanni.

More than 30 years later, British Airways still uses “Aria on Air” as its boarding music and while it has a softer adaptation it still has the same aspirational tone and melody.

Delta Air Lines has a varied playlist for its boarding music but for a long time it used “Adiemus”, a 1994 composition by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins. 

The song made its debut in a 1994 Delta Air Lines TV commercial that showcased the airline’s US to Europe routes.

Unlike British Airways, Delta uses the same version of the tune in both its ad and while boarding.

Delta changed its boarding music in the mid-2000s, going for soft rock tunes and, eventually, using a varied playlist. However, based on online group discussions like flyertalk, long time frequent fliers miss the hauntingly melodic tunes of “Adiemus”.

Do you have a favorite piece of boarding music? We’d love to know.

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