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A Tale of Two Airlines

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On Friday, two events transpired for two very different titans of the airline industry.

o'leary737hug.jpgFor Michael O'Leary, Friday may have marked the high or low water mark in a strange marketing campaign that had the Ryanair chief announcing that the airline, which turns 25 next year, is considering charging £1 for use of the lavatory on board its fleet of 737-800 aircraft. The airline industry has been trending in this direction for a while; un-bundling its ticket prices to keep air fares low.

For O'Leary, the shock factor of charging to use the lav is a point of conversation that generated over 6,000 blog posts (including this one) about his airline in the last 24 hours. Is this type of coverage hurting Ryanair? No. Traffic on his budget airline was up 11% in January (over January 2008) even as European air travel dropped 5.6% last month (IATA). The cringe inducing idea of paying for a lavatory allowed O'Leary to come back to his central point: keeping fares cheap, which in a bad economy is something that can keep people flying.

Perhaps in contrast for Richard Branson, the close of last week marked the inaugural flight of his fledgling trans-Pacific spin-off carrier V Australia. Branson moved his brand into one of the most traditionally protected markets with the help of the US-Australia bilateral Open Skies agreement signed a year ago. The four engine A380 and 747 has found a long range competitor across the south Pacific on the US-Australia routes with the 777-300ER.

Branson and Virgin Galactic.jpgBranson was concluding a highly publicized eight-day, round-the-world trip that covered four continents and culminated in the launch the first commercial service by V Australia from Sydney to Los Angeles and celebrated 25-years (four months shy) of operations by Virgin-branded airlines. Yet, the event was a manifestation of Branson's modus operandi - to push his way into markets introducing new competitive dynamics (read: price wars) on routes long dominated by legacy carriers.

What connects these two seemingly unrelated events are the personalities of their respective leaders, each known for eccentricity and surprising, often shocking (may be NSFW), marketing techniques. Both are strong believers in the fact that any publicity is good publicity and finding a way to use bad publicity to your advantage. (In the airline industry this has a few notable exceptions)

Each airline chief has very different ideas about what their brand represents and who it serves, though both have a keen regard for getting ears and eyes on their products. In these unconventional economic times, unconventional approaches may just help to keep people flying, just as it did during better times. Perhaps it's even more necessary now.

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