PR/Marketing: Meet the Carriers

July 6, 2006
It's all about support and low cost of operation.

AUSTIN — In June, airport marketing and public relations officials met amidst the Central Texas Hill Country for their annual Marketing & Communications Conference, hosted by Airports Council International - North America. It's held in conjunction with the annual JumpStart Air Service Development Program, at which airports update the carriers on their markets and changes therein. The key message: Airlines want entry support; low operating costs; and sustainable routes. Meanwhile, another hot topic of discussion at this media conference was dealing with the general media and access past the screening checkpoints. The conference opened with some words of optimism regarding airline financial health. David Lee, director of economic research for the Air Transport Association, says that while the industry has incurred some $35 billion in losses since 2001, the business is turning around. Lee points to a recent ATA survey that shows airfares are up some 13 percent for the first part of 2006, and he says that Wall Street analysts see more carriers reporting a profit by year's end.

At the same time, recent bankruptcies have accelerated a reduction in overall airline capacity, helping the upward price movement, says David Treitel, chairman and CEO of consulting firm SH&E. Treitel says he expects prices to continue to rebound, helping profitability. Low-cost carriers are altering the operating models, he says, exemplified by Southwest's move into Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and Spirit's hubbing to the Caribbean at Ft. Lauderdale. As the legacy carriers continue to lower their cost structures, says Treitel, the differences between how the two operate narrow. "As we look forward, we see the legacy carriers becoming much more competitive," he says.

At the conference, a panel of airline execs related what the carriers want from an airport when the topic is new or additional service. "When you're talking to us, remember the markets we serve," says Mark Kopczak of Spirit Airlines.

David Jehn of United Airlines says that "a market has to have real potential ... the marketing [assistance] is only to get it going."

Scott Tyra of Allegiant Air says his and other carriers rely on the local airport and other groups to provide insights into the marketplace. He cautions that just because an airline visits an airport does not mean it has decided to serve the market. Tyra brings home the point of operating costs: "What you can expect from us - a lot of questions about costs."

"We're going to ask you to be creative. Your cost structure may not fit what we do," he says.

Media Access

In a session on dealing with the general press, a clear message that was heard is that many airports do not allow reporters past the passenger screening checkpoints. Lauren Stover, assistant director for security and communications at Miami, says that such access is not barred by the Transportation Security Administration; rather it's a matter of individual airport policy. It's one with which she does not agree. In fact, Stover says she has a media hit list that she alerts whenever something newsworthy occurs at MIA. Escorted access is permitted, when appropriate, and her staff feeds ideas ("A day in the life of airport operations," etc.) in an effort to generate stories and foster relationships with the media, she says.