Deceptive Advertising and Practices in the Airline Industry

You don’t have to look very far in the airline industry nowadays to find deceptive advertising and practices. Let’s face it, it’s tough to be an honest marketer in the airline industry, at least here in the US. How can you really market a domestic coach product nowadays? I suppose they can focus on the “cozy comforts” and “great views” that come with the seat, but that’s about it.

While most advertising in the industry is just borderline deceptive (like calling the sandwiches in first class “delicious”), there are some advertisements that I find cross the line. Just last week in the LA Times, for example, American Airlines was advertising that they offer more first and business class seats between New York and Los Angeles than any other airline. The problem is, the picture they used to illustrate it was of their Flagship Suite, which can only be found on their Boeing 777s, which don’t fly between New York and Los Angeles.  Instead, they really operate Boeing 767-200 aircraft, featuring recliner seats in first and business class. That’s downright dishonest, in my book. Then again, I can understand why they wouldn’t necessarily want to advertise those!

But American isn’t alone, as United has been doing this for a long time. I consider United to be the king of upselling, as they’ve been doing it more aggressively than just about any other airline. At the time of purchase and time of check-in you’ll almost always get some form of a buy up offer, often for an upgrade to first class. The only deceiving part is that even if you’re booked in first class on a regional jet, which is only marginally more comfortable than coach, they’ll tease you with pictures of international first class suites when trying to sell you the upgrade. If only the upgrade was to the seat shown more often, I might take advantage of those over priced upgrade offers a bit more often.

The rest of United’s marketing campaigns, at least pre-merger, were quite exaggerated as well, featuring a lot of animation, which was generally pretty well done. Their advertisements for Economy Plus, for example, typically show someone with what can only be described as 10-foot legs stretched all the way out. In reality, Economy Plus only offers a few extra inches of legroom. You be the judge:

Their advertisements for Red Carpet Clubs describe them as “renowned lounges” where “a rest from the day’s travels awaits you.” Well, I suppose that's one way to look at it, though that's assuming:
a) you can get in the Red Carpet Club
b) you can find a clean place to sit
c) you can find a working power outlet

The most deceiving advertisement from United, however, has been their Premier Line advertising, whereby you get priority check-in, security lines, and boarding. While they changed the advertising just a couple of weeks ago with the merger (they're no longer using as much animation), the advertisement depicted a guy with a crown walking on a red carpet through an airport, not having to look out for anyone else. Now, if they sold Global Services for a day (United’s top invitation only tier) that might be accurate, but Premier Line gets you all the benefits that Premier members in the Mileage Plus program get. In other words you get Premier check-in (which is below the 1K and Global Services check-in desk), Premier security lines (which again is below the 1K security line and the Global Services security line at many airports), and you get priority boarding (which is with seating area one, which comes after first class, business class, Global Services, 1Ks, and Star Alliance Gold passengers). The greatest irony has to be that the advertising depicts a red carpet, yet you’re not even allowed to board via the red carpet if you purchase Premier Line, but instead have to board via the general boarding lane.

An area that's also quite frustrating about the check-in experience with United is that when try to upsell you, they make the “accept offer” button the larger button on the left, while the “no thanks” button is smaller and to the side, which is the opposite of how it should be. So I know of quite a few people that have purchased non-refundable travel options because they weren't paying attention while trying to check in online.

One of the biggest scams in the airline industry is the concept of a “direct flight.” Basically, most people use the word “direct” and “nonstop” interchangeably, when in reality they can be completely different. A nonstop flight is just that – nonstop, with one take off and one landing (hopefully!). A direct flight, on the other hand, could have several stops. A direct flight is simply a flight with a single flight number. Take, for example, United 875, which flies from Denver to Seattle to Tokyo to Singapore. The only problem is, it has two aircraft changes enroute. So when you make the booking you would see a “direct” flight listed from Denver to Singapore, and you wouldn’t be out of line thinking that would be a “nonstop” flight. However, at best, you’ll switch planes twice, and at worst you’ll end up stuck in either Seattle or Tokyo if one of your flights is delayed and you misconnect.

There are other negative aspects to direct flights as well. With United, for example, if you’re waitlisted for an upgrade, there has to be upgrade availability on all segments for any segment to clear on a direct flight. In other words, if you’re trying to use a systemwide upgrade from Denver to Seattle to Tokyo to Singapore, and there’s confirmable upgrade space to business class from Seattle to Tokyo to Singapore, but not from Denver to Seattle, you wouldn’t clear. By the time upgrade space opens up from Denver to Seattle chances are the space is gone for the other segments.

Then there are other airlines, like Malaysia, that have more “traditional” direct flights, like the one they have from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur, stopping in Taipei. So there is one stop, but it is the same aircraft for both segments. In other words, at least you’re assured you won’t miss your flight and won’t have to run from one terminal to the other trying to catch your flight. But, deceivingly enough, Malaysia Airlines advertises the flight as nonstop:

On the plus side, while we’re talking about the travel industry, I do have to give the infamous Hotel Carter in New York some credit. Hotel Carter is consistently rated the dirtiest hotel in the United States by TripAdvisor, and gets some of the worst reviews of any hotel. The front page of their website describes the hotel as follows:

“Enjoy the warm hospitality and service at the Hotel Carter, a unique, inviting departure from traditional hotels in Manhattan.”

As long as you interpret “unique” and “departure from traditional” correctly, I’d say that’s some of the most honest marketing out there! Then again, I’m guessing they don’t quite have the marketing budget that other hotels and airlines have to make themselves sound better than they are.

Unfortunately any of the hotel’s lure is ruined when you don’t even have to go as far as the room to find bedbugs:


Or maybe the hotel isn't really that bad… 😉


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