How Airlines Used the Glamour of the Terminal as a Marketing Vehicle

All about who had the first this or the better that

In 1963, MGM released The V.I.P.s. It featured an all-star cast including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Orson Welles. The plot? Fasten your seat belts. The plot is what happens when a bunch of passengers get stuck for hours at an airport. (It’s worth watching the old trailer on YouTube just to listen to the narrator gasp: “Tensions mount, and nerves reach the breaking point, as huge, transatlantic jets stand idle in the fog!”)

Today, a suitable name for a movie like this might be Just Another Day at JFK. But all joshing aside, there’s actually an advertising lesson lurking, and it applies to what you see here. While this 1962 ad for United Air Lines and its 2013 counterpart for British Airways have an undeniable compositional similarity, they also show how a marketing tactic—using the terminal as a way to advertise an airline—has outlived its time.

The very fact that an airline marketer would think of spotlighting its ground facilities is “an interesting thing to do, considering what an airline does,” said Timothy O’Neil-Dunne, who’s worked in the airline industry for 30 years and serves as managing partner for marketing firm T2Impact. Considering that airlines concern themselves rendering goods and services at 30,000 feet, it’s odd to be directing attention to the tarmac.

But not when this first ad came out. While United’s pill-shaped terminal might not look like much today, in 1961 it embodied everything that was thrilling, sexy and new about air travel. Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” had come out in 1958, and LAX had just undergone a dramatic expansion that equipped it with a UFO-shaped revolving restaurant and multiple “satellite” terminals like United’s, shown here. Things were hopping in this little building where cocktail-sipping customers prepared to step onto new jetways, tickets in hand for exotic, faraway places.

“In those days, airports were things of wonderment,” O’Neil-Dunne explained. “So if you were United and you wanted to show that you were hip—and think Mad Men here—then L.A. is the hippest place on the planet, and United is a hip carrier for being in L.A. and having the best terminal in L.A.” In the early ’60s when airlines competed not on price but image, “it was all about whoever had the first this or the better that,” he added. “So they drew your attention to the terminal.”

The era would not last long—and not just because 1978’s federal deregulation would turn airlines into the low-margin, high-altitude cattle cars we endure today. Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 boasts fancy accoutrements aplenty, from Gordon Ramsay’s cuisine to a Tiffany & Co. boutique. So why is it that the most British Airways can say about this crystal palace is that it offers … easy connections? Because we fliers are used to flying now­—and we are not amused. Thanks to packed planes, long security lines and baggage surcharges, there’s no sense trying to sell the terminal as a glamour spot. O’Neil-Dunne sums it up all too well: “As a traveler, I already know that anything you’ll tell me about your airport is bullshit.”