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To meet rising costs, airlines go extra mile with ad blitz

Several carriers have begun placing ads and weather forecasts on boarding passes for travelers who check in online. Several carriers have begun placing ads and weather forecasts on boarding passes for travelers who check in online. (sojern inc. via bloomberg news)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michelle Higgins
New York Times News Service / July 23, 2008

On a recent US Airways flight from New York to Jamaica, coach passengers nursing their drinks were greeted with ads on their tray tables promoting General Motors' OnStar navigation system.

Later, a flight attendant strolled up and down the aisles offering applications for US Airways-branded Bank of America credit cards. An announcement was made over the public address system notifying passengers of the 500 extra bonus miles they'd get by signing up onboard.

"If you have family, friends, co-workers who you think may be interested," one announcement went, "take an extra application for them."

Last week, several major airlines said that they would begin displaying ads on boarding passes for customers who check in from home. Sojern Inc., which is selling the ads, said Delta Air Lines Inc. would be the first to use the ads for flights to Las Vegas and on all other domestic destinations soon afterward. American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, US Airways Group Inc., Continental Airlines Inc., and United Airlines have signed up and will begin the ads in the months ahead, Sojern said.

As if flying wasn't miserable enough, now, after being frisked at security, jockeying for overhead bin space, and squeezing into that middle seat, passengers must endure a string of in-flight advertisements. US Airways, which also offers advertisers spots on ticket jackets, cocktail napkins, and even air-sickness bags, has, until recently, been one of the few airlines running tray-table ads. But as airlines continue to search for every opportunity to offset rising fuel costs and other operating expenses, more are considering onboard ads. Such ancillary ads are worth about $20 million a year to US Airways, a spokeswoman said.

AirTran Airways offers in-flight credit card applications (even rewarding flight attendants with commissions) and carries 17 different Coca-Cola products with napkins and cups that promote those drinks. The airline plans to roll out tray-table ads this fall. Brand Connections, the New York marketing firm that provides the laminated tray-table ads for US Airways, said it has been contacted by three carriers in the past month and has plans to supply tray-table ads to at least two more airlines by 2009.

JetBlue Airways has begun to leverage the TVs in its seatbacks for advertising partnerships, including one with The New York Times, which features videos of journalists upon takeoff. In a deal with Dove, the carrier passed out samples of that beauty brand's moisturizer onboard and showed an ad about the product on Channel 13, its live flight-tracker screen.

Though the airline doesn't plan to introduce tray-table advertising at this time, it hasn't completely ruled out the option. "Right now we don't see tray table advertising as fitting the JetBlue brand," wrote a spokesman in an e-mail message, "but in this environment, everything needs to be on the table for the future."

Southwest, which plans to test onboard Wi-Fi later this year, said that though no decisions had been made, in-flight Internet access could lead to some new advertising possibilities.

Perhaps no airline has taken onboard advertising quite as far as the low-cost European carrier Ryanair. It plasters ads not just on closed tray tables, but also on the overhead luggage bins. Advertising announcements, which last about 30 seconds each, are made as passengers board the plane. And the bulkheads are also available for advertising plugs.

US domestic airlines say they don't want to overwhelm passengers with ad blitzes. "We are very cautious about too much advertising," said a JetBlue spokesman. "We don't want to disrupt the experience."

Passengers are already acutely aware of the ad creep. "When I flew on JetBlue last year between New York and Las Vegas, their free seat-back TV programs were loaded with advertisements," said Robert Owen Jr., a high school language teacher from Long Island, N.Y. "Even the map charting the plane's progress was interrupted regularly to display an ad. Every snack they offered came individually wrapped, prominently displaying each item's respective brand."

As for those midflight credit card announcements on US Airways, "it's getting really annoying to listen to that pitch 100 times a year," said Brian Kush, a technology consultant from New Kensington, Pa ., in an e-mail message.

Advertising firms recognize that bombarding passengers with ads may turn off potential customers. "You never want to upset a passenger," said Brian Martin, chief executive of Brand Connections. "It won't bode well for the brand or the venue that's housing that advertisement." The best onboard ads, he said, provide relevant information or fun diversions for passengers.

For example, a recent tray-table ad by Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol PM offered some simple exercises passengers could do in their seats (knee lifts, foot rolls, etc.) so they wouldn't get stiff. Another onboard ad, via Brand Connections, was presented in a board game format on the tray-table.

But advertisers are well aware of the opportunity offered by an airplane, with its captive audience of strapped-in passengers.

"You've got a billboard in your face for two hours," said Gilles Parent, advertising and partnership manager for the Quebec Department of Tourism, which ran tray-table ads on 42 US Airways planes over the winter. The campaign, he said, was so successful that the company is introducing ads on 21 more planes this summer.

Nearly 90 percent of passengers on the planes with the Quebec ads were able to recall at least some of the ad, according to an e-mail survey conducted six weeks after the flight. Roughly 54 percent were able to name the advertiser and 7.5 percent remembered the tourism website.

Perhaps no one is more affected by the ads than flight attendants, who are not only exposed to them day in and day out but who must also listen to customers grumble about having to sit through commercials or be awakened from their naps by a credit card announcement mid-flight.

"It's gotten mixed reviews," said Mike Flores, president of the US Airways unit of the Association of Flight Attendants. "A lot of passengers complain about it because they don't want to listen to ads in flight."

Bette Burke-Nash, a long-time flight attendant for the carrier, points out one advantage to the tray tables with ads. Hard-to-rub-out stains are no longer an issue, since the laminated advertisements are periodically changed. "Now they're always clean," she said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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