Is airline brand loyalty losing its pull?

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

I have to confess that I have become a Cathay Pacific convert. For now, at least, all because when I last travelled, it was with the Hong Kong-based airline, and that turned out to be a most pleasant experience.

The seat was comfortable, the touch-screen easy to operate, the movie selection great, the meals palatable and the snacks generous for the twelve-hour flight. The crew was attentive and although not as refined as the Singapore girls of rival Singapore Airlines (SIA), most enthusiastic.

The airport ground staffers were not as helpful though, but not many airlines known for their in-flight standards can boast as good a service level on ground. But, at least, they seemed capable of fixing problems. I was told at check-in my booking encountered a system hitch, and I would have to approach the staff at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) to fix my onward connection. However, this was fixed before I boarded the flight.

At HKIA, I was impressed by how I was met on arrival and whisked through Security, as the connection was only 50 minutes. My bag made the transfer too.

When I subsequently called to make a change in booking and to update my Asia Miles, the telephone service was excellent.

Now, the question: For how long will I remain loyal to Cathay? I have flown on other airlines, some of which frequently enough to form a lasting impression. SIA, Air Canada and All Nippon Airways number among those that I am likely to continue flying. There are of course a few others that I will want to avoid if I had the choice. In truth, I have developed a small basket of brands that I will continue to use and no longer swear by only one name.

And so it is, I believe, to be the emerging trend today. Of course, there will be diehards, but since the economic crisis in 2009 with many airlines scrambling to contain costs, most of them have begun to operate like any other airline. While the crisis has levelled the competition and reduced the brand differentiation among the airlines, it has also changed the travel habits and preferences of consumers. Cost has become a primary factor in the choice of airlines, especially for the short haul, which explains the phenomenal growth of budget carriers across Asia in recent years. You are not going to miss the olive in the martini or that sprig of parsley in an entrée if it can be translated into so many dollars of savings.

The irony is how during lean times the competition becomes keener in a survival game. Airlines become all the more conscious of the need to compensate the cutback in frills with better than usual service standards to retain customers. This is the time when hitherto loyal customers begin to sample the fare of rivals, and all it takes is for the experience to be not necessarily matching or better but “not so bad after all”.

Often it is the last flying experience that will influence a future choice. It should therefore follow that if every “last” experience is an impressive one, the particular airline should earn long term loyalty. However, the problem is consistency, which is no guarantee particularly in the case of code-share flights. I have begun to trust that the service on a particular airline is dependent upon the crew in charge of the fight, much less the name of the airline. You only wish it is a case of the occasional, but as the competition opens up more options for the traveller, even the occasional can prove to be costly.

While leading airlines such as SIA, Cathay and Qantas are reviving efforts to improve their product and service, the critical issue remains one of differentiation. Can they provide a standard that is consistently in a class of its own that travellers will not think twice about booking


About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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