Sex over service? Airlines try vixen pitch with passengers

It’s no secret that airline customer service is generally perceived to be as pleasant as a root canal. I was thinking about this over the weekend, as I walked home from Penn Station, after catching Amtrak’s Acela back from Boston. I had a fantastic trip (up and back) and was hung up on the contrasts to air travel.

Later that night, I met a friend for a glass of wine and talked through the issue, particularly the airline side of it. It feels like most of the major carriers aren’t making an effort to repair public exception, with notable exceptions like JetBlue. In almost any other industry, routine public perception being so low would trigger a crisis-caliber response.

Not the airlines, though …

I got my answer today, with a story that passed through my Twitter stream: sex sells. Instead of trying to build and maintain a solid image, an airline could just give up, and try to win new passengers the old fashioned way. And indeed, it is the old fashioned way, as anyone who remembers National Airlines’ 1971 commercial with flight attendant Cheryl Fioravente’s invitation: “Fly me.”

[Image credit: Flickr/Rachel Kramer Bussel]

Cathay Pacific isn’t going to that extreme, but it is making an effort to seduce passengers with shots of eye-candy that has yet to hit The Big 3-0. The flight attendants, uniformly hot in uniform and not, pose alongside quotes that could read from a customer service manual or a personal ad: “I just like to listen more than talk” and “Nothing beats a smile for turning strangers into friends.”

Who wouldn’t want to hear that at boarding?

The Wall Street Journal notes that this is a departure from the advertising of the past few decades, in which airlines have sacrificed the sensual in favor of the practical: “comfort, convenience, low fares and fine in-flight dining.”

Of course, that approach hasn’t really been working too well, especially the comfort and convenience aspects. In addition to dealing with an abysmal image, the industry has to contend with tighter market conditions as a result of the post-financial crisis recession. There isn’t as much disposable income to go around, and passengers have to choose between flying and other forms of recreation. Business travelers can be more discriminating, when destinations permit.

Cathay Pacific isn’t alone: Air France has headed into sexier territory with its latest ad campaign, which the WSJ describes as having a “blonde model wearing a pink corset, its strings apparently being loosened by a miniature plane taking off.” The U.S. carriers aren’t there yet, but the overseas trend nonetheless makes me wonder if the approach should be on their radar.

It’s pretty clear that something needs to change for an industry that struggles to make a right move in the public’s eye, even in cases where such ire is unwarranted. Maybe it is best to stop trying to look good … and focus on superficial beauty instead.