While other airlines rush to cut costs or add new, costly offerings, AirTran is able to tout its six years of profitability, which it achieved through a no-frills approach to customer service.
AirTran Airways has fared incredibly well in the media recently, considering the airline industry's overall dismal state. While legacy carriers continue scrambling to cut costs, the airline boasts six consecutive profitable years and plans to increase its number of planes and destinations over the next year. AirTran has carefully set the stage to take on the intense competition from other low-fare carriers, such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways. Not bad, considering its shaky beginnings.
"It's been a roller coaster ride," says Tad Hutcheson, director of marketing, regarding AirTran's start as ValuJet in 1992. "When ValuJet came out, it was very successful."
But after Atlanta-bound Flight 592 crashed into the Florida Everglades in 1996, a review by the Federal Aviation Administration forced the airline to shut down for 15 weeks. So, in 1997, the airline acquired AirTran Airways and assumed its new name, part of the airline's effort to change its brand, shake up the management team, and distance itself from the crash.
The rebranding effort, though necessary to draw customers back, was no simple task. "The biggest obstacle to overcome after we changed our name was that for years people said, 'AirTran Airways, formerly known as ValuJet. ...' You could not get your brand proposition out there," says Hutcheson. "We knew that we had to put an extra focus on our safety department and our maintenance department to ensure that we were operating a safe airline, so we said, 'Lets get new planes in here as fast as possible,'" adding that, in the eyes of the public, newer planes meant safer flights.
A small PR staff
Since the airline's subsequent turnaround, AirTran consistently breaks the mold created by other airlines. But perhaps the most surprising detail is that, with more than 500 flights daily, approximately 6,000 crew members, and more than 40 destinations, the airline's entire PR department consists solely of two staffers - Hutcheson and PR manager Judy Graham-Weaver. In an industry where a 25-person communications team is commonplace, this slimmed-down staff reflects AirTran's commitment to a low-fare structure.
Hutcheson and Graham-Weaver, with the help of CKPR, handle everything from routine press releases and charity events to employee newsletters and crisis communications.
While responding to the constant influx of media requests, the team still finds the time to proactively pitch AirTran's messages, especially its most defining characteristic in this marketplace - its profitability.
"After 9/11, the pendulum swung toward the low-cost carriers," says Joel Curran, managing director at CKPR Network. "AirTran was in the perfect position - they had the right communications in place, the right story, and the right product." As airlines continue bleeding funds and filing for bankruptcy, AirTran often finds itself on the opposite side of the negative stories.
One key to getting positive media coverage has been its integrated approach to branding. "Unlike other airlines, where they do something on the marketing side while PR may be focused on something else, we work together," says Hutcheson. "We direct our brand message to business travelers - those who realize that saving $200 on airfare will go toward the bottom line."
Branding has always been seamless, as CKPR is a subsidiary of Cramer-Krasselt, the agency that creates AirTran's advertising, explains Curran.
"If we brainstorm an idea in PR, we immediately walk across the hall and take it to the ad people," adds Curran. "I think that has been the one constant throughout - no matter what happens, we work on it as a team. If I could line up all of the branding campaigns that we've done over the years, you would see a very consistent, logical evolution of the brand, and PR has played a leading role in that every step of the way."
AirTran works on differentiating its image from competing low-fare airlines by touting its two-class cabin and no-frills approach to in-flight entertainment, as the televisions carried by other low-fare airlines add extra weight that ultimately burns more fuel. Instead, the airline has become the first to carry XM Satellite Radio, a choice that better suits the airline's mission to offer high-quality - but still cost-efficient - services.
AirTran's PR team introduced the new service by organizing an event in Las Vegas with music legend Elton John, who was on hand to unveil a new aircraft livery that would adorn 20 of the planes. "People love it," says Hutcheson of the commemorative design that illustrates the singer's smiling face. "They see it, they know who he is - he's instantly recognizable. By doing a promotion with Elton John, we attached our brand to a bigger one, and, in doing so, have expanded our own."
Promotions like this have proved the importance of PR to AirTran's success. "So often, the gripe and angst of the PR pro is that we aren't heard, that we don't have a place at the strategic table," says Curran. "And that's why AirTran is such a perfect model of how things should operate. PR doesn't just have a seat at the table - it has a voice."
Curran is not the only person impressed with AirTran's commitment to PR. "They absolutely know the right way to do it," says Bill Liss, the financial and consumer editor at NBC affiliate WXIA-TV News, in Atlanta. "Honesty and personal contact - those are the two important things that they possess."
Where others in the airline industry exhaust every effort to shield their executives from the public, AirTran goes out of its way to offer their expertise and comment, adds Liss.
"Because Tad has made his senior executives very available to us, we're always getting the straight scoop on what the airline is up to... the most interesting thing of all is that they are as responsive to me on the negative as they are with the positive."
AirTran's forthright and candid approach is not limited to the PR department. "We certainly have a style to be up front and basically give it straight - get out early with bad news, if it happens to be the case," says president and COO Bob Fornaro.
Liss recalls how Hutcheson responded when AirTran discovered that one of its pilots allegedly showed up for work smelling of alcohol. "It didn't take 59 people a day and a half to figure out what to do," says Liss of the circumstances. "This guy did it on the spot, and the airline wound up getting a very fair shake in the coverage because of the responsiveness of the PR people. I think when you have a very positive PR approach, you're going to be treated very fairly by the press."
In addition to handling crisis communications, Fornaro understands the importance of having his PR team proactively seek positive coverage.
"The image of your brand is really tied to the way the people feel about your company," he says. "We really need to make sure that those positives are shining through."
"This past year has been certainly a growth year for us, taking delivery of new 737s," adds Graham-Weaver, "and we're adding several new facilities, so we've had a grand opening of some sort every month." Yet in between handling the logistical challenges of running an airline with headquarters in Orlando, FL, and its hub located in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, reporters still comment that Hutcheson and Graham-Weaver respond more often than do larger PR departments.
And looking forward to the coming year, with plans to add new cities and aircraft, AirTran's imminent growth can only mean more opportunities for the airline to gain media attention.
"We see the role of PR at AirTran growing over time and playing a much bigger role in the way we expand," says Fornaro.
That's good news for an airline that only a few years ago was flying just under the radar.
Director of marketing Tad Hutcheson
PR manager Judy Graham-Weaver
PR agency CKPR