It is ironic in today’s global airline industry that we can have a sentimental attachment to a carrier because it bears our national flag or symbol on its tailfin.
I can’t help but raise a smile when cabin crew on my home carrier, British Airways – wearing distinct navy blue uniform – welcome me onboard with a polite British ‘hello’ at a far-flung, foreign airport.
BA– whose stylised union jack motif is carried around the world – may be flying a plane full of passengers from every walk of life, but I am still half expecting to wake up over London with a full English breakfast on my lap as BA’s official anthem, the soothing “flower duet” by Lakmé plays in the cabin.
While we can identify with national carriers and their brands, their identities are less defined today.
It’s little wonder, as many flag carriers like BA – once state-owned and run – are now in private hands and have turned into global forces by forging merger partners.
Although sometimes this structural change is often invisible to flyers: BA and Iberia, which tied the knot last year, continue to fly under their own brands and colours.
But it doesn’t stop me from looking back fondly to a time when so-called flag carriers were perceived as cultural ambassadors for their countries.
What happened to those iconic, soul-lifting TV ads from British Airways and Qantas that made us feel proud to fly our ‘flag’ carrier?
BA’s ‘face’ television campaign – which first aired on our screens in the 80s– is still warmly remembered today for inspiring trust, credibility and a sense of national pride in flying the flag carrier.
The ad unites thousands of people from all cultures, who form a face which smiles and winks, with the union jack jumping out in the background and the tagline “World’s favourite airline”.
BA’s ads also put the sense of anticipation back into flying, such as its 2006 advert reminding us that BA is “the way to fly”.
Another favourite is Qantas’s “I still call Australia home” advertising campaign from the 90s, beautifully sung by the Australian girls choir at scenic settings around the world.
This week, Qantas group boss, Alan Joyce announced a shake-up of its international operations that will see Qantas turning to Asia- the world’s fastest-growth market – for new business, in an effort to lead Qantas International back into the black.
It perhaps reinforces the general sentiment among Australians that the ‘Spirit of Australia’ is becoming the ‘Spirit of Asia’.
But Joyce insisted this week: “We’ll always call Australia home.”
On today’s global airlines, where the travel experience can feel no different from one airline to another, it would be refreshing to see national carriers going back to their roots and promoting a unique travel experience that makes us remember them.
Singapore Airlines has recently done just that in a recent advertising campaign, based on the gracious, warm service and hospitality of the Singapore girl that people around the world have long associated with the brand.
As United Continental Holdings announces plans for a new ad campaign to promote the newly merged airlines, it’ll be interesting to see if United – which lost its famous ‘tulip’ emblem in the merger– will also lose its signature “Rhapsody in Blue” theme song in the re-brand.
Today’s flag carriers are more than simply aluminium tubes with wings bearing their home country’s union jack, Canada’s maple leaf or Ireland’s shamrock.
History reminds us that an airline’s country of origin has deeper significance to us.
I remember the backlash when British Airways turned cosmopolitan, etched the union jacks off its tailfins and re-painted them with striking ‘ethnic’ designs. The attempt to shake off BA’s ‘British’ image to give its brand global appeal failed miserably. Customers hated it.
Modern air travel may be dominated by no-frills, budget airlines appealing to the budget-conscious, but it’s about time established carriers like BA reminded us why travelling on a flag carrier is generally a more pleasant experience.