United’s Oprah Plane: Unwanted Cargo


Who wouldn’t want to travel on Oprah’s private plane? Indeed, the luxury and convenience of private jet travel. But that’s never going to happen. So, for the rest of us plebes, there is the new United Airlines “Oprah Winfrey Show Farewell Season Plane.”

With an interior exclusively decorated by Oprah herself, and a special greeting video from the queen of daytime, it’s almost like the elegant era of airline travel is back. But not really.[more]

United released a statement explaining its Oprah plane, saying, “As Chicago’s hometown airline, United is proud to celebrate The Oprah Winfrey Show’s Farewell Season with our customers, employees and ‘Oprah’ show fans… This unique plane represents the global reach of two great Chicago icons.” The Oprah plane will fly through mid-2011.

Airline branding is a special beast because while it certainly exists, air travel brands are especially vulnerable to price sensitivities and availability. Sure, I would love to fly JetBlue, but JetBlue doesn’t fly to where I live. So while airline consumers certainly have their preferred  brands, their purchasing decisions are often driven by other factors.

Beyond the tenuous connection to Chicago, where Winfrey’s Harpo Studios is based and her longrunning show taped, it’s not clear how the Oprah plane will benefit the airline (in fact, it could easily turn just as many off — “The Farewell Season”?)

Indeed, if United really wanted to do a promotion having to do with Chicago and United, it would find a way to improve experiences at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, one of the most despised in the nation and recipient of only two of a possible five total marks in the most recent J.D. Power rankings for overall satisfaction, security and accessibility.

Schemes like this Oprah stunt don’t hurt airline brands any more than controversies like the Steven Slater debacle hurt them. (Jet Blue passenger traffic was up 15% in the wake of the Slater incident.)

Airline brands hinge on fundamental services, not stunts. United’s recent announcement that it would offer a free signature cocktail to business class passengers, for example. That kind of customer service touch encourages positive brand association.

Meanwhile, however, United has also attracted a lawsuit from an advocacy group for blind passengers who claim the brand’s kiosks don’t service them. These small details, not a snazzy livery and big celebrity tie-in, are the true foundation of a strong and sustainable airline brand.