Air France reminds travellers what their flight could be like, amid fierce competition

Airbus A380 jetliners bearing the Air France livery on the tarmac at Paris Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport.
Airbus A380 jetliners bearing the Air France livery on the tarmac at Paris Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (NYTIMES) - You open what looks like an inflight care package to find 50 feet of Sudoku puzzles on a tapelike roll, Champagne-flavoured gummy candies and a scratch-and-sniff patch that smells like boeuf bourguignon.

In a time of low-cost airlines, where your ticket might not include a hot meal or free access to electronic entertainment, the box reminds you of what could be if you shell out a little more on Air France.

That's the idea behind the airline's new "Take a Chance or Fly Air France" campaign, which will begin showing up in American digital ad space this week.

"We want to remind our clients and our future clients that there is another way to travel, even in economy, where everything is included," said Ms Dominique Wood, Air France's executive vice-president of brand and communication. "You've got a very comfortable seat, you've got a hot meal and a full complement of entertainment, and if you can have it - if you're the right age - a glass of French Champagne."

The airline is seeing more and more competition, even on its trans-Atlantic routes, from mostly European carriers that advertise rock-bottom fares. (Air France also has its own low-cost option, listed online as a "light" fare, that does not include a checked bag. To keep its base fares more competitive, the airline charges a fee for seat selection on most economy tickets.)

With cheap flights becoming increasingly popular, Air France's campaign offers an image out of another era. The airline wants to let travellers know that flying does not necessarily have to be a bare-bones experience.

And, Ms Wood said, those ultra-low fares are not always as cheap as they seem.

"We are quite convinced that most of the low-cost carrier's clients don't know that they pay nearly the same price when they travel with the low-cost company because when they have the luggage, the meal, the drinks, the entertainment, at the end of the day it's very similar to the all-included price they could pay with Air France," Ms Wood said.

The Air France campaign will mostly be a digital one, but visitors to the Grove mall in Los Angeles can win pairs of round-trip economy tickets. The care packages will also be given away, and will be available in an online sweepstakes.

American low-cost airlines do not compete directly with Air France, but they use some of the same advertising techniques that its less-expensive international competitors do.

"Obviously, we promote our low fares heavily - it's the price point that will be successful at getting attention," Ms Tyri Squyres, vice-president of marketing at Frontier Airlines, said in an e-mail. "And then we educate customers on all the options they have with us."

She added: "Our goal is to simply let people get off the couch and go. Our low fares enable more people to travel and do it more often."

Fare-based advertising has been a popular tactic for decades, but as travellers have become more price conscious, in part because researching cheap tickets has never been easier, they sometimes gloss over the fine print. Many ultra-low-cost carriers charge extra fees for services like selecting a seat before departure, checking a bag and receiving onboard drinks and snacks.

This, Ms Squyres said, is where the company's branding becomes even more important.

"The last thing we want to do is have a customer surprised at the airport," she said. "We have invested heavily in all of our touch points to ensure customers understand our product and all of their options."

Frontier's website was recently overhauled to make the fee structure more clear.

Mr Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group and a former marketer at a number of airlines, said Air France's and Frontier's marketing strategies were both good examples of how airline advertising has changed over the decades.

"Airlines don't do a lot of advertising anymore," Mr Harteveldt said. "They focus a substantial amount of their media investment now in search engine optimisation."

He noted that American carriers were some of the least likely to advertise. "When you have four very large airlines, they don't have to market as aggressively as they once did," he added.

That's a big change from a few decades ago. From Trans World Airlines' "Up, Up and Away" to United Airlines' "Friendly Skies", commercial branding was central to an airline's image.

One of Mr Harteveldt's favourite ads was British Airways' "Manhattan" commercial, which emphasised how each year the company flew more people across the Atlantic than the population of Manhattan.

That kind of creativity can still be fun to see in retrospect, but it's no longer necessarily the best way to attract customers.

"The challenge is that an airline today, with its advertising, needs to think beyond just the media portion of it," Mr Harteveldt said. "Will they be running the ads on price comparison sites and on social media? Those are critical now - to reach travellers of all ages, frankly - when people are in that phase of dreaming of travel before they have selected an airline."

And when carriers do choose to advertise more traditionally, they have to pick their message carefully. "Airlines have to strike the balance between image-based advertising and very hard-hitting retail or tactical advertising," Mr Harteveldt said.

But it makes sense, he said, for Air France to be investing more in advertising in the United States than some of its American competitors.

"The foreign-flag airlines tend to be more aggressive in advertising because they're not as well known and in many cases are promoting destinations beyond their home market," he said.

The "take a chance or fly Air France" campaign stands out because of its emphasis on inflight service.

"As airlines have unbundled their product, they almost don't want to remind you of what it's like to fly them," Mr Harteveldt said. "What Air France is doing is a smart marketing move, but it's also a brave marketing move."