Analysis: A cost-cutting battle for the skies

Barely a day passes without one of the low-cost airlines hitting the headlines. But how do the carriers use PR to differentiate themselves, and where is this is increasingly acrimonious war of words leading?

When Ryanair staff tried to drive an armoured car with gun turret up to easyJet's HQ last week, it was the latest PR stunt in the Dublin-based carrier's ongoing PR campaign to draw attention to its cut-price fares and poke fun at its increasingly bitter rival.

Ryanair staff, in combat fatigues, were unsurprisingly denied access to the airside area at Luton Airport, leaving CEO Michael O'Leary to conduct media briefings in a nearby car park.

The airline claims the resultant coverage proved the stunt worked, while easyJet claims to have 'stolen the keys from the vehicle while no-one was looking, replacing it with one of (head of corporate affairs) Toby Nicol's business cards'.

PR's critics would no doubt slam such antics as the industry at its self-indulgent worst. But, in spite of this, the PR battle between the two firms looks set to continue apace. They now dominate the no-frills market following Ryanair's purchase of KLM-offshoot Buzz in February and easyJet's merger with British Airways spin-off Go, just months before.

Generally speaking, the tone of Ryanair's PR work - the armoured car 'raid' was clearly metaphorical - is more aggressive than that of rivals, according to aviation sector watchers.

Ryanair's simple message -'we are the cheapest' - contrasts with easyJet's multiple messages, which, for example, stress the more advantageous locations of some of the airports into which its planes fly.

Travel Trade Gazette aviation correspondent Gary Noakes points out that since easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou stepped down as chairman a year ago, the media-generated war of personalities between him and O'Leary has given way to PR battles on issues such as routes and pricing.

Nicol doesn't hold back when asked to comment on Ryanair's PR work. He describes the Irish firm's PR forays as 'infantile babbling' (and he never misses an opportunity to allude to the location of some Ryanair airports -'We don't fly to a strip of grass an hour from the city centre').

Alan Clark, who runs the eponymous firm retained by Ryanair for UK regional press work, says the task is straightforward: 'Our PR message is blunt - we just have to find different ways to let people know we are the cheapest.'

Both Noakes and Guardian travel editor Andy Pietrasik acknowledge Ryanair has stepped up its PR in recent weeks. 'Ryanair has turned on the heavy ammunition in the past month or so,' says Noakes. 'They're bored with BA and are turning the focus onto easyJet - and also Aer Lingus.'

Ryanair comms manager John Rowley says: 'We argue easyJet has become a high-fare carrier masquerading as a low-fare carrier' and adds that the best PR (in the broadest sense) Ryanair can garner is if 'easyJet continues to offer high fares'.

But what of the other airlines? Again, Nicol doesn't mince his words, saying he 'gives more thoughts to next year's Christmas-card list than to them'.

Pietrasik points out a categorical difference - the contrast between 'no-frills' and 'low-cost' operators.

Low-cost airlines include FLYbe and, Pietrasik points out, BA, which could also qualify given the discounted fares it has recently launched on many routes. This is not to mention the many other carriers, such as MyTravelLite, Jet2 and GermanWings.

Castle Donington-based bmibaby launched in January 2002 and attempts to stress differences other than price. Head of corporate comms Robert Nadin explains the PR strategy: 'As we're just over a year old, the main focus has been on brand awareness. (But) the focus is now shifting much more onto the consumer, attempting to emphasise benefits of bmibaby such as our allocated seating and increased hand-baggage allowance.'

Allocated seating is also offered by low-cost operator Basiq, an airline that will fly the Stansted-Amsterdam route from 26 May.

Helen Coop, director at BGB & Associates, which is promoting Basiq in the UK (PRWeek, 16 May), says the strategy will promote the airline's convenient take-off times as a point of difference between Basiq and Luton-based rivals such as easyJet.

Exeter airport-based FlyBE retains Emerald Media for consumer PR. Emerald account director Helen Edwards says FlyBE seeks to stress that the airline is 'the regions' airline, not London's airline', via 'aggressive but friendly' marcoms work.

Given the intensity of the competition to woo passengers, it is perhaps surprising some airlines spend relatively little on consumer PR work, at least in terms of external agencies.

Nadin, who handles PR in-house for bmibaby, says: 'Some agencies are still too expensive for low-cost airlines. If agencies are pitching for low-cost airline work, they need to adopt a low-cost agency philosophy'.

Low-cost philosophies or not, the low-cost airlines' PR battle is set to get livelier - certainly in some quarters - as they continue to woo passengers in an ever more cut-throat market.

AIRLINE PROS

Gate 1 easyJet

In-house staff PR - three, marketing - approx. 25 (UK and Europe) Head

of corporate affairs Toby Nicol

Retained agencies Financial Dynamics (financial PR), Hill & Knowlton

Brussels (lobbying)

Gate 2 Ryanair

In-house staff PR - two, marketing - approximately ten in sales &

marketing, plus other staff drafted in for specific launches

Head of comms Paul Fitzsimmons

Head of regulatory affairs Jim Callaghan

Retained agencies Murray Consultants,Dublin (lead agency, handles corp,

financial and consumer), Alan Clark Communications (UK regional press),

plus 'small' agencies across continental Europe

Gate 3 bmibaby

In-house staff (shared with parent bmi) PR - four, marketing - two

Head of corporate comms Robert Nadin

Manager for industry and regulatory affairs Will Lofberg

Retained agencies None dedicated to bmibaby

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