Ground control

Few industries have the spotlight turned on them more than the airline business. So how are the PR teams coping? Polly Devaney investigates

Ground control

It is a challenging time for airlines, to put it mildly. Firmly under the environmental spotlight and often accused of ‘greenwash’ over their planet-saving measures, they are now dealing with the harsh business effects of the record price of oil.

Airline PR professionals are currently faced with the dual task of convincing the public that flying is worth paying more for and is not going to destroy the planet. With the demise of business-class-only airlines Silverjet, Eos and MAXjet, the recent collapse of Zoom and the likelihood that others will soon follow suit, there is a lot at stake when it comes to successful public comms and the investment community.

Jonathan Sloan, PR director at Hills Balfour Synergy, believes the key challenge facing airlines is to deal with increased fuel costs but to still make flying seem accessible to the general public. Environmental issues and the ext-reme competition among the major players also rank highly in the list of challenges, according to Sloan.

Debbie Hindle, MD at travel PR agency bgb communications, believes the low prices era could be over for good. ‘I think we have probably had a golden age of cheap and guilt-free travel,’ she says. ‘People will look back on it with fond memories, but prices were already unrealistically low, especially at the low-cost airlines. Their business model depended on large subsidies from regional governments and massive add-on sales.’

Graham Boynton, travel editor of The Telegraph, believes that ‘from a PR point of view it is a critical moment for airlines’, as the golden era of low-cost airlines had a profound effect and consumers have taken low prices on board. ‘There is a lot riding on it,’ says Boynton, ‘but I am optimistic. It is a very important and telling time and PR is a hugely significant party.’

Virgin Atlantic’s comms director Paul Charles agrees aviation is facing its most challenging period for a decade.

Nevertheless, the PR-led Virgin has still been busy tapping into environmental concerns, switching to hydrogen cars for its limo service, placing a large order for the latest fuel-efficient Rolls Royce engines, and running the first biofuel flight to Amsterdam back in February.

EasyJet’s head of comms Toby Nichol says the amount of press coverage on aviation and the environment has declined significantly in recent months and the challenge of being exposed to the price of oil has firmly taken centre-stage. Nichol says about 10 per cent of people offset their easyJet flights but admits ‘people tend not to worry about the polar bear if they cannot pay the mortgage’.

At British Airways the environment is still top of the agenda for its team, as well as high fuel prices, according to head of consumer PR Kate Gay: ‘A significant number of of our keynote speeches have focused on the environment and how we are tackling it.’

BA’s environmental campaigns include a revamped carbon offsetting scheme and working with Rolls Royce to test alternative fuels.

With cutbacks in routes alr-eady ann-ounced by several big players, double-digit declines in share prices and far from impressive quarterly results announcements over the summer, there can be no doubt that a huge amount of work is going on behind the scenes and that airline PR teams are firmly battening down the hatches to ride out the storm.

So here is PRWeek's quick guide to the communications teams of the top UK and Irish scheduled airlines.

aer lingus

Current issues: Under attack from major share-owner Ryanair
Key routes: Dublin to London, New York, Boston
Head of comms: Gillian Culhane
Tel: 00 353 1886 2350

Current PR activity: Tries to position itself as ‘low cost with added extras’ but currently focused on managing the difficult operating environment. Has worked with Dublin financial agency KCapital Source since 2006 alongside Powerscourt and Drury Communications.

Often under attack from Ryanair since the latter’s failed hostile takeover bid in 2006.

In the news: CEO Dermot Mannion said in July that he cannot rule out cuts in long haul flights as the fuel price and credit crunch impact is felt.

Billionaire financier Dermot Desmond is tipped as favourite for next chairman of the airline.

Ryanair bought 3.5 million more Aer Lingus shares in July, giving it a 29.8 per cent stake in its rival.


Current issues: Opening new routes and envied for its Heathrow landing slots
Key routes: London to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, London to Moscow, Manchester to Chicago
Head of comms: Robert Nadin
Tel: 01332 854687

Current PR activity: Focusing on the business traveller market and highlights developments such as paperless check-in and flat beds.
Has run PR campaigns around the recent new-route launches of London to Cairo and Tel Aviv and East Midlands to Cologne – took 40 journalists on press trips to the new destinations.
Four Communications won the corporate PR work in 2003 and the consumer account in 2004. This
was then retained by Four Communications and the brief extended following a competitive
repitch in October 2007.

In the news: Recent bad press and front page news in The Times for allegedly flying empty planes out of Heathrow to keep its landing slots.

British airways

Current issues: Controversial alliances and still working to recover from Terminal Five ‘PR nightmare’
Key routes: Biggest long haul markets are the US and India and busiest routes are London to Paris, Frankfurt and Madrid
Head of comms: Julia Simpson
Tel: 020 8738 5100

Current PR activity: Aiming to win back consumer trust post-Terminal Five debacle. Current campaigns include BA’s 2012 Olympic sponsorship and the Heathrow expansion. Majority of the airline’s PR is done in-house but it uses Porter Novelli in the UK and a range of agencies worldwide.

In the news: The opening of Terminal Five and loss of 28,000 bags on the first day has been widely held to be the biggest PR disaster in recent years, with CEO Willie Walsh under fire ever since.
Still reported to be losing 1,000 bags a day at Terminal Five but has been putting out positive news about the terminal to try to counteract the negative.
BA was ordered to pay £270m by the Office of Fair Trading in July after the fuel surcharge-fixing collusion with Virgin.


Current issues: Benefiting from a strong European network and environmental focus
Key routes: London to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, London to Amsterdam
Head of comms: Toby Nichol
Tel: 01582 525339

Current PR activity: Nichol leads an in-house team of seven to cover the UK and Europe, with FD used for financial PR since 2003. Continued focus on environmental concerns following the announcement of the easyJet ecoJet in 2007. First airline to offer a UN recognised carbon offsetting scheme. Nichol believes easyJet will be one of the winners in an economic downturn due to its scale, resources and European network – 60 per cent of passengers originate outside the UK. Summer charity collections launched in aid of the Anthony Nolan Trust with rugby star Will Greenwood and the easyJet bus touring the South West swapping old flip flops for easyJet branded ones.

In the news: Lobbying the Government to change air passenger duty to a per-plane tax as well as campaigning for a ban on the 700 oldest planes in service.
CEO Andy Harrison believes easyJet will grow its market share as legacy airlines make cuts or disappear, despite warning of a 45 per cent fall in profits this year.


Current issues: Eco-labelling and a football focus
Key routes: Edinburgh to Southampton, Belfast to Gatwick, Birmingam to Glasgow
Head of comms: Niall Duffy
Tel: 01239 2266702

Current PR activity: The regional airline continues to promote its ‘eco-labelling scheme’ which aims to enable passengers to make a more informed choice about carbon offsetting. It named a Newcastle-based plane ‘Kevin Keegan’ in July in honour of the Magpies manager and sponsors several regional football teams, but this year ended its deal with Norwich City. The carrier has worked with The Red Consultancy since 2003.

In the news: Flybe operates three times more domestic routes than any other carrier, which could make it especially vulnerable to the fuel crisis and credit crunch as people look to alternative modes of transport for shorter journeys. Reportedly advertised for actors to fill seats on Dublin to Norwich flights in order to meet agreed passenger numbers and avoid a large fine. Acquired BA’s regional airline Connect last year and signed a franchise deal with Scottish airline Loganair set to launch in October.


Current issues: Apart from downturn, Monarch has Ibiza tie-ins and is all set for a celebrity reality TV debut
Key routes: Gatwick to Malaga, Manchester to Malaga, Manchester to Palma
Head of comms: Jo Robertson
Tel: 01582 398287

Current PR activity: Second year of successful partnership with dance record label Hed Kandi. Developed ‘flyKandi with Monarch’ which included dance and aviation themed events in the UK and Ibiza and gained coverage across all sectors of the media. Recently announced CelebAir to be screened on ITV2 this autumn. Ten celebrities will be trained to work as cabin crew, check-in and ticketing staff on selected Monarch flights. Each week Monarch mentors will fire the celebrity who has not reached ‘Monarch standard’ of customer care. All PR is handled in-house by a team of three, which has seen no new recruits since Robertson joined in 2005.

In the news: Celebrated its 40th anniversary in April with a reunion of original 1968 crew and the current crew wearing copies of the 1968 uniforms on flights that ran on the anniversary.


Current issues: Cheeky Irish sense of humour retained despite oil crisis
Key routes: Dublin to Gatwick and Stansted, Frankfurt to Stansted, Rome to Stansted
Head of comms: Stephen McNamara
Tel: 00353 1 812 1271

Current PR activity: Continues with outspoken, tongue-in-cheek PR stunts and commentary on industry issues. Focus on cheap seats with no-frills and current key message of ‘no fuel surcharges ever’. Expert at jumping on topical bandwagons, such as announcing £1 fares to Scandinavia to tie in with the Abba craze around Mamma Mia! the movie.

In the news: Worldwide coverage by being sued by Nicholas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni for a spoof advert that used their picture without authority.

At a Dusseldorf press conference in June, when questioned about its proposed move into the long haul market, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary made an off-the-cuff remark that its first-class section would include ‘beds and blowjobs’, much to the embarrassment of his interpreter, who explained there was no German translation for the word ‘blowjob’. A clip of the conference has had almost half a million views on YouTube and Ryanair issued a press release offering a free flight to the first person to translate ‘blowjobs’ into German.

Virgin Atlantic

Current issues: Focused on quality and committed to PR
Key routes: London to New York, Los Angeles, Johannesburg
Head of comms: Paul Charles
Tel: 01293 747373

Current PR activity: Charles’ in-house team of seven does not use an agency and is focused on its key message of having ‘the best product quality in the air and on the ground’. Believes it is well placed to manage the current downturn due to being solely long-haul and known for attentive customer service.
Virgin Atlantic recently took 50 journalists to Kenya to relaunch that route and Virgin is sponsoring The Times Responsible Travel Awards this year.

In the news: With Richard Branson’s unerring belief in PR, Virgin Atlantic is rarely out of the news.
Branson recently predicted ‘spectacular casualties’ in the airline industry over the next year and demanded the BAA monopoly be broken up.
Still looking at buying BMI, which has 11 per cent of valuable Heathrow landing slots.

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