United Airlines Announces New International Routes With Cryptic Video

The brand's head of social is now head of advertising, changing the tone of the airline

United announced its new routes in a Twitter video packed with hints. United Airlines

In such a dire travel ecosystem, almost any announcement from a travel brand is a big deal—new partnerships with cleaning products, resuming routes and reducing capacity. With advertising budgets slashed, brands have been largely quiet, putting out minimal messaging that it’s safe to fly and encouraging would-be travelers to book a trip.

That’s why it was so surprising when United Airlines released a TV-quality series of short ads announcing new international routes. A global pandemic would have been a good excuse for the airline to hold off on what is now the third year of adding new routes toward the end of summer.

Announced this morning, United has expanded its international network to include nonstop flights to Africa, India and Hawaii. The seven new long-haul routes will see United become the first airline to provide nonstop service between the U.S. and Bangalore, India; Accra, Ghana; Lagos, Nigeria; and Johannesburg, South Africa. 

“We’re focused on rethinking the network, not just looking at adding everything back where it was prior to the coronavirus,” said Patrick Quayle, United’s vice president of international network and alliances.

Released on Tuesday before the announcement, the teaser video drops more than 30 clues about the new routes, including a forensic evidence board straight out of CSI. Sharp-eyed travelers could find hints like ZIP codes and flight durations to guess the new destinations.

Such teasing of the new routes has become something of a United tradition: In 2018, the airline shared word scrambles, though aviation geeks figured them out within hours. The following year, United made a video featuring paper planes hinting at new destinations.

“This year, because people don’t have a lot to look forward to when it comes to travel, let’s go bigger than we’ve ever done before,” explained Maggie Schmerin, head of advertising and social media for United Airlines, who led the in-house creative effort. “Let’s make it really hard to solve. We wanted people watching the video multiple times, taking screengrabs, looking for clues.”

It worked: Tuesday’s teaser saw a 170% increase in impressions over last year’s video, according to Schmerin.

United has undergone a tonal shift on the brand’s social channels over the last 18 months, with aims to be lighter, more fun and human. In June, the brand’s advertising was brought under Schmerin’s leadership. The playfulness was suppressed by the pandemic, pivoting to emphasize the brand’s cleanliness initiatives, but is now beginning to inch back toward its original tone. The brand’s big focus for the rest of the year will be to emphasize last week’s announcement about the end of change fees.

Even the new routes, however, won’t help the airline stave off layoffs come Oct. 1, according to a United spokesperson. In a filing this morning, the airline said that capacity for Q3 would decrease 70% year over year instead of an expected shortfall of 65%. Revenue forecast has been adjusted to drop by 85%; last quarter, the airline posted losses of $1.6 billion.

In a slight glimmer of hope, United noted in the filing that it had seen a “moderate improvement” in bookings for leisure travel in the domestic U.S. and to short-haul destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

According to the TSA, 935,308 passengers passed through the agency’s checkpoints on Labor Day. Combined with Friday’s similar numbers, it was a high for the travel industry this year—but not nearly similar to 2019, which saw nearly 2.3 million Labor Day travelers.

@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.