You can't put a blanket over bad PR move

If you've done any flying at all in recent years, you've come to realize that there are now only two real choices in airlines: stodgy old mainstream carriers that offer high prices and poor service, or the funky fleet of new low-cost airlines that offer it all, from your own personal satellite TV to food that doesn't remind you of that scene in Airplane! where passengers start spitting up eggs.

If you've done any flying at all in recent years, you've come to realize that there are now only two real choices in airlines: stodgy old mainstream carriers that offer high prices and poor service, or the funky fleet of new low-cost airlines that offer it all, from your own personal satellite TV to food that doesn't remind you of that scene in Airplane! where passengers start spitting up eggs.

But if you haven't been in the air lately, all you had to do was glance at the news last week. The difference was made crystal clear, again, by the two camps themselves. In one corner, there's AirTran, which announced on Tuesday that it would start offering complimentary XM satellite radio service on all its flights to Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. The announcement was made via mammoth-sized Elton John portraits adorning several planes. Granted, Elton John in 2005 is "hip" only to people who think driving a Pathfinder is "sexy." But consider the competition. Later that same day, American Airlines announced it is taking away your pillow. Why? Because they cost too much to replace when they get dirty. And yes, we're talking about those same scratchy cotton balls you've been folding under your neck since the 1980s. The airline claimed the move would save it $375,000 a year. True as that may be, the bad PR couldn't have cost them much less. The media love these kinds of stories (as do we), and they jumped all over it. And, of course, it was mentioned in between gushes over AirTran, XM radio, and Elton John's massive grinning mug. But there's hope. Showing uncharacteristic concern for customers, the airline sent out a spokesman with this message, according to USA Today: "The blankets will remain on all flights to keep passengers warm when cabins get cold. They can serve as pillows if necessary."
  • Douglas Quenqua writes PR Play of the Week. He is PRWeek's Washington, DC, bureau chief. Ratings: 1. Clueless 2. Ill-advised 3. On the right track 4. Savvy 5. Ingenious

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