FRIDAY FRUMP: US airlines’ manipulative marketing

The purpose of marketing is to gain customers, and it is common practice to tell prospective customers why your business is better than the competition. While that often involves accentuating the positive, the marketing proffered by most U.S. airlines has, at one time or another, crossed the line and played fast and loose with the facts.

America’s airlines have been promising to improve service overall and many are touting how they are making improvements in the flying experience, but when you drill down – and you don’t have to drill down very far – they are making the improvements primarily for First Class and Business Class passengers. Those in the back? Out of luck.

For example, Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) recently announced changes to be made to Virgin America’s Airbus fleet.

Their spin: “Premium seating will be expanded across the [Virgin America] Airbus fleet.”

The reality: They fail to mention the new seats will come at the expense of legroom. When the carrier adds more First Class seats, pitch will shrink from the 55 inches currently available to 41 inches of pitch. Premium economy seats to be added beginning in 4Q18 will offer 35 inches of pitch compared to 38 inches today.

Alaska’s spin doctors certainly aren’t alone among the nation's airlines. Among the others massaging their marketing messages is American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL)

The spin: On the landing pages of its website, American recently touted its recognition in this year’s Freddie Awards, where air travelers named its AAdvantage Elite program the best Elite frequent flier program in North America. But what about the Great Unwashed?

The reality: While American may have happy Elite frequent fliers, the rest may have a tough time actually using their accrued miles. The annual Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey showed that, in 2016, American’s frequent fliers could only expect award seats to be available on 56.4 percent of its planes, the lowest percentage of any U.S. carrier.

A recent survey of airline customer satisfaction by J.D. Power Company appears to show that non-elite passengers are none too happy with the AAdvantage program. It ranked second from the bottom, with 688 points out of a possible 1,000. Only United Airlines’ (NYSE:UAL) MileagePlus program was rated lower, at 673 points.

More seat survey spin: In 2012, United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) had 87.1 percent reward seat availability through its MileagePlus program, well behind the 100 percent availability on Southwest. But it didn’t let that fact get in the way. The airline put this boast at the top of its webpage: "MileagePlus: #1 in award seat availability." The qualification was farther down: "Among United States global carriers (United, American Airlines, US Airways and Delta)."

In May of this year, CNN disclosed that American is planning to reduce legroom aboard its new Boeing (NYSE:BA) 777-MAX aircraft to a degree that will rival planes operated by ultra-cheap carrier Spirit (NASDAQ:SAVE), which have 28-inch pitch, according to

In a nutshell, AA is ordering planes with pitch – the distance from the back of one seat to the back of the seat in front of it – from 31 inches to 29 inches for three rows, and to 30 inches for the rest of its “standard economy” seating. The change will allow American to cram about 10 more passengers into those planes, going from 160 to 170.

The reason I included that bit of hard news in this diatribe against marketing spin is this: American did not announce this development on the newsroom section of its website. That page had happy-happy-joy-joy stories including “American Airlines Named Best-of-the-Best Corporations for Inclusion by National Gay & Lesbian Chamber Of Commerce” and “Free Main Cabin Meals Coming on Select Coast-To-Coast Flights.” I reached out to American’s media relations department for additional details on the announcement and the reduced seat space but never received a reply.

Spinning customer “satisfaction”

The J.D. Power survey mentioned previously showed that budget carriers jetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) and Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) ranked the highest in overall satisfaction. Alaska ranked highest “among traditional airlines” followed by Delta, American, and United, respectively.

Alaska uses its ranking in advertising and in on-board announcements with the proper qualification, but in print, the words “among traditional airlines” are a footnote, and are reduced to a near-whisper during in-flight announcements.

Alaska also spins other facts in flight. During a recent round trip between Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA) and Sacramento International (SMF), the flight attendants announced that Alaska was “The most on-time major North American airline, according to FlightStats.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, that honor consistently goes to Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA). The spin is that FlightStats does not classify Hawaiian as a “major North American airline” but a regional carrier, despite the fact that it serves seven major airports on the U.S. mainland’s West Coast, East Coast, Phoenix (PHX) and Las Vegas (LAS).

My favorite all-time spin? The ad campaign Southwest Airlines ran during March Madness in 2015. In it, Southwest claimed that, “We invented low fares.” Trouble is, history shows that Southwest no more invented low fares than Al Gore invented the Internet, as I detailed in this article.

U.S. airlines are certainly not the only ones to use manipulative marketing. Earlier this year, I called out Icelandair for its claim of offering "More legroom when you fly Icelandair to Europe."

What’s to be done? Aside from re-regulating the industry, which Washington seems loath to do, airline passengers would do well to bear in mind the old adage, “You can’t believe everything you read.”

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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