Can Pakistan International Airlines make a comeback and again be the darling of air travellers?
It would be very poignant for the veterans at our national airlines to view the Emirates inaugural flight video that is doing the rounds on social media. Like a spent star watching with mixed emotions the first performance of a youngster she gave a break to, PIA can only reflect on what was and lament the fact that the time and the crowds have passed her by.
Our national carrier was the star of the airline industry, giving stellar performances, rarely fluffing her lines. In her heyday, like an actor in her youth with an insight in to what is sellable, PIA knew exactly how to please the crowds, she was the leading lady, the talk of the town. No it wasn’t only branding or advertising; yes, they were amazing, but they were strongly backed up by a service oriented organisation.
Can PIA make a comeback and again be the darling of air travellers? I’m sure that if there is one brand most people in Pakistan would love to see resurrected it would be PIA. We love nostalgia, we remember the 1992 World Cup win and dream of being top of the world again. Similarly, we see those wonderful PIA ads and we fall in love all over again.
Recently, I and other members of the Khalid Alvi Marketing Next Facebook page had an amazing opportunity to interact with a legend in the aviation industry, Richard Bates. Bates, who had been hired to work for PIA by Shaukat Aziz in 2009, has built some of the most popular airline brands, including, Emirates, Etihad and Virgin. Before that he worked for agencies such as FCB, Grey and Saatchi.
So what did he reveal to us? First off he spoke about getting the basics right – no not price, promotion, etc. As he put it: “Let me state very simply, before you even start on marketing an airline, you need to ensure that it fulfils the basic hygiene factors, it must be safe, secure, clean and punctual.”
He highlighted the role of the staff and was impressed that almost all of their staff had never worked for another airline. He emphasised that the top man is key and that for an airline everyone, from the CEO to the janitor, is responsible for service delivery. For PIA to regain its lost glory, it needs to highlight the core values that all Pakistanis share whether in Houston or Vehari.
When asked whether PR could work or whether digital media had changed the scenario for PIA, he was very clear: “The reason Emirates and Singapore Airlines are among the most highly rated global airline products is that they have jealously guarded their product integrity. It may now be as cheap as chips to tell the world about yourself via digital media, but the fact remains that in order to stand out from the crowd, you need a product positioning which is both solid and contemporary.”
Bates placed importance on excellent customer service as well as believing that marketing is not a department, but everything a company does or fails to do. Another area he highlighted was that dead weight (in the form of over-staffing) was a major threat to a resurgent PIA. He spoke about how British Airways under James Hogan went from a staff of 50,000 to 30,000, but all the 30,000 were in his words- “were absolutely convinced that the customer was their ultimate boss.”
"Dead weight (in the form of over-staffing) is a major threat to a resurgent PIA."
— Richard Bates, Former Director Special Projects, PIA.
Bates was probed whether he believe PIA was salvable. To the surprise of many of us, he say he firmly believed the airline could return. The formula according to him? If the will of the staff is mobilised by a visionary leader, to create an airline that is relevant to the travelling needs of all major segments. A PIA offering based on not only nostalgia but something more tangible – service you can rely on, day after day. Now, the people in that kind of company would really be great people to fly with.
Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan. email@example.com