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Some Airlines Promote the Truth in Advertising

August 02, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Anyone who has flown lately can testify that good service in the air is often the exception rather than the norm.

In fact, it can easily be argued that flights featuring courtesy rather than curtness, edible rather than plastic food and convenience rather than complication are fast becoming an endangered species.

And yet the airlines continue to advertise the nearly impossible. The airlines persist in promoting what few of them can deliver. One airline advertises that it has more planes to more cities than any other. (All that means is that the airline can also boast it has more planes delayed than any other.)

Another boasts that it serves meals on fine china. (However, considering the food it serves on its flights, it might be better just to eat the china.) And yet another carrier offers the cheapest air fares between popular destinations. (But because the airline also overbooks by 30% on every flight, your chances of getting a seat, even if you're holding a reservation, are not great.)

Is it any wonder, then, that fewer and fewer surveyed airline passengers enjoy their journeys, and that most of us merely attempt to cope with a growing number of aggravating experiences on our way from one city to another?

Not Buying the Hype

Now, finally--and thankfully--a few airlines are realizing that the flying public isn't buying the hype.

For example, until recently one airline was accused of listing unrealistic flight times to gain a competitive edge, while more and more flights were delayed.

Passenger complaints rose not only against the airline but against a host of other carriers that also took part in this questionable scheduling game.

Now American Airlines has decided to address the issue forthrightly.

"Why does it seem like every airline flight is late?" one of its new advertisements asks. "For years," the ad admits, "airlines have published overly optimistic flight times. For example, a flight that normally took three hours was listed as two hours and 50 minutes. They did this to attract more customers."

"As more and more airlines compressed flight times and the number of flights grew, the number of late arrivals skyrocketed."

The advertisement then announces that American will now publish "only realistic flight schedules. Schedules based on the time it actually takes to fly a given route." The airline admits that to reach that goal it has rescheduled 1,537 of its 1,600 daily departures.

Upcoming American Airlines ads will focus on passenger baggage performance, maintenance and other issues. This new ad campaign appears at a time when the Department of Transportation has issued a comprehensive proposal that would require airlines to disclose their on-time performance as well as specific flights that are chronically late.

But an airline ad campaign that really deserves an award for truth in advertising belongs to Qantas, perhaps the first airline willing to admit that getting there may not be half the fun it's supposed to be.

In the last few weeks the Australian airline has embarked on an ambitious, if not risky, "educational" ad campaign in England to share with its current--and prospective--passengers some of the truths of air travel.

Problems on Flights

In one ad Qantas talks about the problem some people have in sleeping on long flights: "Flying all the way to Australia can be a real pain down under. The seats in an airplane--whatever some airlines might claim--hardly resemble your bed. And the cabin certainly doesn't compare with your bedroom."

The ad then offers some very sound advice about what you can do--wear loose-fitting clothes, slippers, do some isometric exercises. But the airline doesn't promise that its movies will help get you through the flight: "While Qantas gets the most up-to-date films, we can't predict their snooze rating."

The airline offers some additional suggestions on passing the time on the plane: "Socialize, or better still, travel with someone. Although jet lag tests have shown the benefits of having a traveling companion, there is as yet no scientific proof that taking your secretary is essential to corporate health."

How's this for candor? "We realize that all airlines talk about service and comfort as if they have a monopoly. The truth is that things like comfort are in the eye (or at least the behind) of the beholder. A bad experience can put you off for life. . . . We don't want to make any promises we can't live up to. However, we can give you a few facts and hope that you'll give us a try."

Indeed, the airline offers more than a few facts about its service, its aircraft and some painful details of long distance flying.

On passenger comfort: "Bear in mind that any problems you may have on a flight will be exacerbated by the length of the journey. For instance, a slightly uncomfortable seat may be bearable for an hour or two but will become an obsession after that."

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