Ask the pilot

From hungry lions to an in-flight striptease, the best and worst of airline advertising.

Published June 23, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Have a look at this, and tell me what you think. It's from SN Brussels Airlines, the de facto national carrier of Belgium.

When I first clicked over, I wanted to believe there was something daringly humorous about the idea of three lions chewing an upended airplane seat. I conclude there is not. The image is simply disturbing. Omit the logo and tool bars and present it to a hundred people, and 95 of them will see exactly what I see: the wreckage of a jetliner crash somewhere in the wilds of Eastern or Southern Africa. Heck, there are even clots of grass and a swath of scraped-up earth tracing the chair's path as it bounded from the shattered fuselage -- which presumably is just out of the frame. The picture is scarily reminiscent of those taken at Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, depicting semi-intact seats that had fallen from the plummeting hulk of Pan Am 103.

There are few hard-and-fast commandments dictating the protocols of air carrier advertising, but there is one to be ignored at considerable and lasting peril: Thou shalt not portray wreckage, or anything that might be construed as such, in your promotional copy. Though, if nothing else, at least we're spared the bloodied remains of the seat's occupant. I can't imagine lions have much of an appetite for fabric and plastic, so somebody must have been sitting there. This unfortunate soul has either been flung from view or, good grief, been devoured by the hungry cats, right down to his (or her) sneakers and underwear.

If there's credit due for anything, it's for not being squeamish. Try to imagine Northwest or United laying out a pitch like that. When it comes to advertising, airlines in general, and especially those in the United States, aren't particularly bold, tending to err on the stodgy, formulaic side.

It's enough to make us nostalgic for the old National Airlines "Fly Me" campaign of the early 1970s. "I'm Lorraine," a seductively posed stewardess would say to the camera. "Fly me to Orlando." Braniff Airways had a similar pitch, called the "Air Strip," showing attractive young stewardesses changing uniforms midflight to the sound of suggestive music. Now that was edgy, and maybe a bit tasteless -- without reminding anybody of death or crashing.

If there's a certain sameness to airline advertisements nowadays, it's probably because carriers don't have much to work with -- for the simple reason that most of them sell essentially the same product. Where and when differences arise, competitors are quick to capitalize. JetBlue, one of the few players known to get quirky and nudge the envelope, fancies itself the progressive nonconformist, with an emphasis on customer service. "We like you too," JetBlue tells its customers (a bit presumptuous, maybe, and a highly capable slogan for just that reason). Southwest, for its part, relentlessly exploits the niche of super-low fares and user-friendly access at outlying airports. (Notice I say relentlessly, for after hearing that infernal "BING! You Are Now Free to Move About the Country" tag more times than I've heard my own name, I propose that Southwest's entire corporate board be strapped into chairs and fed to starving lions.)

For the legacy airlines, ammo is limited. They all fly to pretty much the same places (either directly or via their alliance partners), for roughly the same fares, with the same lackluster service. How to differentiate themselves? With scattered exceptions, they hardly try.

One of those exceptions, about 10 years ago, was a United Airlines TV ad celebrating the carrier's new routes into Central and South America. The commercial starred a tropical parrot. Perched on a piano keyboard, the bird pecked out United's signature music, George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." It was artful, amusing and effective. We don't often think of airlines having theme songs, but "Rhapsody" is a good one, and has remained as United's catchy musical accompaniment.

But possibly the most memorable airline commercial I ever saw, if not entirely for the intended reasons, was the 1989 "winking eye" spot from British Airways. Conceived by the Saatchi and Saatchi agency and directed by Hugh Hudson ("Chariots of Fire"), the commercial featured hundreds of people costumed to represent various world cultures, assembled in a dramatic, lion-free landscape near Salt Lake City. The voice-over was from actor Tom Conti; the score, from Léo Delibes' opera "Lakmé," was adapted by Malcolm McLaren. Seen from high above, the actors took on the shape of a gigantic face, which through the magic of carefully timed choreography proceeded to "wink."

It was a stunning and altogether creepy 30 seconds. Very clever, but I get nervous when masses of oddly dressed people are winking at me. What's worse, I forever associate British Airways with footage of the crowds in North Korean stadiums forming those enormous profiles of the Dear Leader.

Still not as bad as the lions. SN Brussels -- we'll get to the company's odd name in a minute -- clearly could use some tutelage on how to bother people. The lions bit isn't even campy, the way European advertisements often look and sound to Americans. There's nothing of the "Mentos effect," to coin a phrase, in their efforts.

But what should we expect, maybe, from something called "SN Brussels Airlines"? We've already done a worst-named airlines of all time column, so I'll keep it short, but where does such a strange moniker come from? I wish the answer were more interesting, but "SN" is the airline's two-letter IATA identifier. That's the International Air Transport Association, the Montreal-based industry trade organization. Among many more important duties, IATA awards two-character designations to its members. The codes consist of letters, numbers or one of each, used primarily for ticketing, flight numbering and other behind-the-scenes purposes -- the type of things most passengers have no inkling or concern about. Thus it is patently sensible that an airline should so boldly celebrate its IATA identifier. JetBlue, for one, surely missed an opportunity by not calling itself "B6 New York Airways."

The original, and better-named, Belgian national airline was Sabena. One of the world's pioneer carriers, Sabena had been in business for 78 years before shutting down in 2001. The name was actually an acronym for Société Anonyme Belge d'Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne, or Belgian Company for Exploiting Aerial Navigation. But nobody needed to know that, and everyone simply called it "Sabena" (Sa-bee-nah), which, you have to admit, had a very pretty sound to it.

From the ashes of Sabena rose SN Brussels, founded in 2002. It decided the best ways of honoring a storied predecessor were to usurp its well-known corporate logo and hype its IATA code.

SN Brussels flies about 40 aircraft, most of them short-haul regional jets. A small fleet of Airbus A330s is used on limited intercontinental services. On its Web site, the ghastly tableau of the chair and lions appears just below the "Our African Destinations" tab, which is either hilariously unintentional or exactly the point. Whichever, it strikes me as a way of saying, "You're better off taking Air France."

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Re: Passenger profiling

"In your instructive tweak of that notorious, Arab-baiting chain-mail 'quiz,' you missed an obvious instance of yet another non-terrorist attack against a U.S. jetliner -- the crash of PSA flight 1771."

-- Lance Gutten, Pittsburgh

Author's reply: Gutten is correct (and this is an incident I'd written of twice before). You may add the following to last week's list:

  • In 1987, who broke into the cockpit of Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771, shot both pilots, then dove the airplane into the ground, killing all 44 onboard?

    a. Muslim male extremists mostly between the ages of 17 and 40
    b. James Carville
    c. Rush Limbaugh's cousin Andy
    d. David Burke, a recently fired employee

    The answer is D. I also could have included the infamous hijacking and parachute escape of D.B. Cooper in 1971, and any of several take-me-to-Cuba hijackings of the '60s, '70s and '80s.

    Re: Police states

    "Several readers objected to your referring to Israel as a police state. Barak Pearlmutter wrote that 'Israel is not a police state by any rational definition,' listing the reasons: no thought crime, a democratic government, and free elections. Harvey Cohen wrote that 'if it is possible to be both a functioning liberal democracy and a police state, then Israel is a police state and so are the U.S., the U.K. and a host of others.' Clearly the term is ambiguous and a matter of degree. At one extreme it means a totalitarian government as in the Soviet Union under Stalin or China during the Cultural Revolution. A case can be made, however, that Israel is a milder version of a police state, in which a sophisticated security apparatus monitors the population constantly for threats. In this version, individual rights and freedoms are curtailed. It is indeed possible to be both a functioning democracy and a police state. Whether it is called a 'police state' or a 'security state' is an exercise in semantics. Given the documented and proven unequal treatment of Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis, a strong case can be made for calling Israel an apartheid state."

    -- Pat Peterson, New York City

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  • By Patrick Smith

    Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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