When I first arrived in Prague in 1990, the soon to be great Czech Airlines had trouble persuading the many foreigners that were piling into the country to fly with them. The Brits, in particular, really only trusted British Airways and the idea of flying on what they then regarded as a ‘third world airline’ was beyond imagination. However, the slightly wild bunch of expats like myself, who could barely afford to fly at all, didn’t care who we flew on as long as the ticket was cheap, and every Friday evening what we called the ‘travelling pub’ took off for London with a group of us sitting in the back.
With the curtains drawn (yes, curtains), most of us smoking as we rattled down the runway and then drinking everything in sight until we landed in the UK, no-one gave a thought to safety and security, and, actually, we didn’t need to, as the Czech pilots were former military, who, one felt, would think nothing of throwing in a couple of loop-the-loops along the way to make the flight more interesting.
Czech Airlines at that time, though, had some very good people working for them (those were the days!) and they soon realized that to start competing with the western airlines, they needed to get marketing. In addition to buying a fleet of new Boeings (some of which I had the huge pleasure of organizing their first landing for), they also brought in a loyalty programme that was second to none. Air miles for every trip, irrespective of the cost, different levels of frequent flying cards that were very easy to gain and offered all sorts of benefits, and nearly guaranteed upgrades to business class if one had a gold card (and, sometimes, silver too if you knew the right people – which we did then). My partner, a handsome chap, was even offered free upgrades every time he flew by one of the ground staff if he would take her out occasionally (not sure that ‘taking her out’ was quite what was on offer, but you can guess what I mean. And no, he didn’t take her up on it!).
Two years on from the flying pub days, the same group of degenerates could soon be found sitting up in business class on the way to London, Paris, New York, wherever, and that is where most of us built up our contact base; we even used to discuss the idea of flying in and out of the UK some days, purely to hand out business cards!
Such was our loyalty to Czech Airlines at that time, that wherever we were travelling we would go out of our way to fly with them, even if it wasn’t the easiest or cheapest way to go (for example, we often flew to Malaga in Spain via Madrid, in order to go on CSA , rather than taking a direct, low cost flight!).
Just a few years ago and several changes of personnel later (and the economic crisis to boot), Czech Airlines sadly announced that they were stopping all flights to New York. And then to Paris. And then to London, stating that these were not popular enough, nor economically viable. Not only that, but all air miles accrued on their frequent flier programmes needed to be exchanged for flights by a certain date, otherwise they would disappear (flights that we usually found were impossible to get), and all benefits such as upgrades and so-on were ceasing. We couldn’t believe our ears.
We wrote letters to the management, pleaded with them not to do it, and refused to consider the possibility of flying with anyone else, until the day came that the last ever Czech Airlines flight landed in London. And that day was, for many of us, the last day that we ever, ever, ever flew with Czech Airlines – now we go out of our way to avoid them, even if that now means a more problematic route! It was also, probably, the day that Czech Airlines started its gradual sink into bankruptcy.
Of course we realized that the frequent flier card and the air-mile awards were overly generous, but we loved Czech Airlines then and we felt let down (not to mention that we really didn’t believe that routes to London, Paris and New York weren’t popular or profitable enough… clearly something more sinister was afoot).
So what is the morale of the story from a marketing point of view? Better not to offer something at all than to give something great and then take it away. Customers can be very fickle and once they get used to a certain level of fee, service, product, they don’t like seeing it change.