This is a black-and-white photograph from the 1950s or the 1960s. It symbolizes the nostalgia consumers may have for what they think customer service was in the past.

When was the last time you had a great travel experience? This year? Last year? A decade ago?

The travel industry, like many others, sinks billions of dollars into advertising every year with companies hoping to create the next great campaign, reposition their brand or redefine what they stand for. It is important to be on the hunt for the next big thing, to seem new and fresh. But many in the industry are looking back for inspiration. Their company history, real or perceived, is helping them redefine what their company will be in the future. The key to their success is nostalgia—a sentimental emotion that elicits warm feelings and pleasant memories.

A race to the bottom

In a post 9/11 world, air travel doesn’t exactly elicit warm fuzzy feelings. Security lines are longer, seats are getting smaller and in-flight perks are disappearing. Gone are the days of meeting your loved ones at the gate upon arrival, actual silverware on a flight (or a meal, for that matter) and glamorous flight attendants in fashion-forward uniforms.

Airlines realize that they are falling out of favor, but why? Flights are cheaper than ever, delays are fewer, and consumers have access to more options than ever before. Before deregulation in 1978, travel used to be exclusive. Many people didn’t fly until they were adults simply because families could not afford it. After deregulation, air travel became much more accessible. Carriers have to compete to offer the lowest prices to consumers, and with the introduction of low-cost carriers such as Spirit and Frontier, it has truly become a race to the bottom.

Unfortunately, bargain prices mean bargain amenities. So how do airlines keep customers coming back? The best recourse, some airlines are finding, is to tap into nostalgic memories of air travel. Through small initiatives, they are able to recreate the feelings that made people love flying—convenience, comfort and exclusivity.

Little luxuries

Large airlines like United and American are trying to harness these feelings by drawing on experiences from the golden days of travel. American repainted the livery of some of its planes to honor some of its “heritage brands”—brands that have disappeared into the modern American Airlines conglomerate through acquisitions. Dovetailing this initiative, the airline also offered retro amenity kits with branded items such as socks and eye masks to its business and first class passengers and passengers on long-haul flights. By increasing the feeling of nostalgia to business and first class fliers, American effectively targeted travelers who fly on a repeat basis—and make up half of the airline’s annual revenue.

These limited-edition kits encouraged road warriors and brand-loyal collectors to fly more in order to collect them all. The odes to the past to reminded passengers about the heritage and legacy of American Airlines, and were also a nod to the generations of employees who brought that legacy from other engulfed airlines.

Airline mergers can be messy and take years to finalize. Modern airlines often find themselves as an amalgamation of different organizations, resembling Dr. Frankenstein’s monster—functioning but a little confused as to who they are. In the chaos of bringing companies together, little common culture or heritage creates a strong organizational bond.

“We have more than 100,000 employees, each with their own unique story, and these retro amenity kits are a small tribute to the heritage of their careers and their legacy carriers,” said Fernand Fernandez, vice president of global marketing for American.

The kits not only reminded customers about why they loved traveling with American Airlines (or one of its legacy companies), but also showed employees the long legacy of travel innovation of which they are a part. In times of uncertainty, customers and employees were shown where American Airlines has been and the historic cultural values it is taking with it into the future, creating a sense of security and trust.

This is a photograph of an American Airlines airplane sporting the retro Astrojet logo.
An American Airlines plane sports a retro “Astrojet” livery in 2008
This is a photograph of various retro-branded amenity kits. Bringing back some luxuries of the past can uplift feelings of nostalgia.
These retro-branded amenity kits pay tribute to the various airlines acquired by American.

Credit: American Airlines

The “Queen of the Skies” abdicates

American’s main competitor, United, tapped into the power of nostalgia when retiring the Boeing 747 in November. When United first started flying the iconic double-decker aircraft in 1970, the plane was at the vanguard of what travel should be. With varying configurations on different carriers, the plane featured bold designs, high ceilings, bars and lounges. The 747 epitomized the idea that life is about the journey and not the destination.

Nearly 50 years later, the planes were beginning to feel dated, and with newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft on the way, United bid adieu to the “Queen of the Skies.” The company created a sentimental farewell video and organized a special final flight for the aircraft—think 1970s attire, menus and in-flight entertainment—as well as special amenity kits for upper class passengers featuring collectibles from throughout the aircraft’s history. Emotional ties to the Boeing 747 are so strong that United is even auctioning off parts of the plane, including seats and window panels, so that customers can bring home those memories and feel nostalgic whenever they look (or even sit in) their own piece of aviation history.

United’s use of nostalgia harkens customers back to a time of grandiosity and luxury in flight and inspires a connection between the United of the past and of the present. The company is not simply “United Airlines” but the company that built the most luxurious form of transatlantic travel—a company that will continue to innovate and bring their customers the best. Nostalgia builds trust in a world of uncertainty.

This is an image of the United Boeing 747, double-decker "Friend Ship". United Airlines has always known the best method of nostalgia branding for effective connections.
A United Boeing 747 at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 1973. The aircraft was affectionately nicknamed the “Friend Ship.”

Credit: RuthAS

Even airlines with no connection to the golden age of flight realize the importance of using their history to build relationships with customers and highlight future-focused endeavors.

A vintage Virgin

For its 25th anniversary campaign, U.K.-based carrier Virgin Atlantic rolled out an ad that juxtaposed a brightly colored Virgin cabin crew in their unmistakable red uniforms walking through an airport of muted colors. Meanwhile, some unmistakable markers of ’80s Britain appear: a newspaper decrying a miner’s strike, someone eating at Wimpy Burger, a teenager playing Asteroids and a child playing with a Rubik’s Cube. All set to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax.”

The ad is an ode to Virgin Atlantic’s maiden voyage in 1984. At the time, it was viewed widely as an upstart challenger to the often drab, state-run, British Airways establishment. Although it came onto the scene as a low-cost carrier, the airline was the first to offer many new amenities, including the first to have seat-back televisions for all seats. The ad evokes the excitement of the airline’s debut. It was a breath of fresh air to trans-Atlantic travel, which by then had become rather stale. For loyal Virgin flyers, the ad evoked a powerful sense of nostalgia.

This nostalgic image is of Virgin Atlantic's "Maiden Voyager". During this time, their logo, colors, and even commercials were key for branding.
Virgin Atlantic’s “Maiden Voyager” made the company’s first flight between London Gatwick and New York Newark Airport on June 22, 1984.

Forging a new legacy

In November JetBlue launched its seasonal service from JFK to Palm Springs, California, by unveiling a number of retro initiatives to celebrate the preferred retreat of the mid-century elite, known fondly as the “playground of the stars.” Although a fairly new airline—it’s only been around since 1998—JetBlue has won numerous awards for customer satisfaction and continues to provide standard amenities when other competitors are cutting them.

It is somewhat surprising then to see the airline act as if it were a legacy carrier by redesigning crew uniforms to look as if they were from the 1960s and repainting the plane that would fly the inaugural journey to mimic the earlier decade’s style. In order to do this, JetBlue designers turned to The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at The Cooper Union in New York.

Working with the Center’s head design curator, Alexander Tochilovsky, JetBlue designers spent several days researching authentic retro typography. They scoured original advertisements, images and graphics to find patterns and common elements to replicate, rather than copying a single piece. “To build a brand from scratch that would mimic or authentically reproduce the ’60s vibe, it’s important to look at a lot of things,” said Tochilovsky. “There’s a certain playfulness that carries through in the branding that they did.”

JetBlue took a holistic approach when essentially inventing a brand that did not previously exist to evoke a sense of nostalgia. It dug deep and found an authentic ethos that is embodied today by the brand and its employees.

“The foundation of (design and storytelling) is present in everything JetBlue touches, and our crew members are empowered to live them,” said Jamie Perry, VP of marketing at the airline. “It is one thing to have brand values on paper and a stylebook to guide design, but it’s another to have them work together and for you on the brand’s front lines each day.”

Leveraging an extinct brand

Third-party travel and hospitality providers also see the potential of nostalgia as a marketing tool. Consider real estate developer and hotel operator MCR Development’s renovation of the famed TWA terminal at JFK airport. Opened in 1962, the terminal was designed by famous architect Eero Saarinen, and in its day, it was the pinnacle of space-aged modern design. Unfortunately, due to changes in the industry, the terminal could no longer keep up with modern demands and was closed when TWA ceased to exist in 2001.

The terminal sat unutilized but safe, due to the landmark status bestowed on it by the City of New York and its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, until MCR and airline JetBlue signed a lease for the space and announced formal plans in late 2016. When the gargantuan effort concludes in late 2018 or early 2019, the space will include a hotel, several restaurants, a night club, conference space and a food court.

The driving force throughout all of this project is the power of nostalgia. According to MCR’s CEO Tyler Morse, inspiration was drawn from the building’s origins. “Everything in this development is about 1962.” When the renovations are complete, passengers will have a comfortable space to relive some of their favorite flight memories. For JetBlue, who will occupy the terminal, it gains a connection to a titan of the golden age of travel, TWA, and all the nostalgia and potential customers that comes with it.  Morse told Architectural Digest in a recent interview. “The aviation community is a die-hard community. And this building has so much history of aviation. This is going to be a terrific place.”

This is a photo of the TWA terminal at JFK airport in 1962, designed by Eero Saarinen. Its sole purpose is to bring about a sense of nostalgia throughout the entire airport experience.
The interior of the TWA terminal designed by Eero Saarinen at JFK Airport, circa 1962

Credit: James Vaughan

Authenticity is key

These campaigns didn’t go retro because of a lack of modern marketing schemes. Companies like United, American Airlines and Virgin are finding success tapping into nostalgia surrounding travel. At the end of the day, these airlines need to make money—whether it’s through absorbing other airlines, cutting amenities offered in order to lower operating costs, switching to more efficient aircraft or opening new routes. While some of these measures can rub the public the wrong way, the airlines have attempted to remedy this loss of faith by tapping into the goodwill brought back by a fond memory.

A catchy tagline or slogan will always come up short in comparison to a good story that draws on authentic emotion.  When nostalgia is deployed correctly, it utilizes real history to evoke these feelings, and can create some of the best campaigns in the world.

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