I have no idea what kind of hook airlines can hang their branding and marketing efforts upon nowadays. No longer can they play up convenience, comfort, glamour, value, promptness, service, efficiency, flexibility, orderliness, odor or abundance of mass-produced beef stroganoff. What's left? "Fly Braniff, where a majority of the seats are firmly affixed to the cabin floor"?
There seems to be a single strategy left: the dreaded people-person approach. You know, like "to some minimal extent, our employees are decent human beings who have a passing interest in treating our passengers like petting-zoo denizens, if not social equals." For its current campaign, Cathay Pacific adopts just such a tactic, emphasizing the friendliness, general competence and eagerness-to-please-iness of its staff.
As part of its "People. They Make An Airline" push, Cathay Pacific attempts to distinguish itself on the basis of smiles per cabin inch, or something. Its flight attendants, you see, are practiced in the ancient art of making eye contact. Whenever possible, they refrain from waking up sleeping passengers to ask if they'd like a pillow. They don't unjustly persecute esteemed individuals and besmirch the twin traditions of customer service and democracy for playing word games on an iPad while taxiing for takeoff. The pilots and non-customer-facing employees are way cool, too. You haven't lived until you've had your cargo reserved by cargo reservation sales agent Keiko Kohno, who plays the piano.
It's a curious approach, especially as fliers continue to lose their crap about paying for what they used to get for free. That said, one has to admire Cathay Pacific for trying. The online scrapbook of staff biographies humanizes company personnel in a manner that's not possible anywhere else. Somehow, the airline has found something remotely interesting to note about each of the myriad featured employees, which probably says as much about the marketing peon who executed the campaign as it does about the individuals themselves.
The problem, of course, is that passengers aren't likely to judge a flight attendant on his past life as a short-order cook or elephant whisperer or monk. No, he'll earn a thumbs-up or thumbs- down based on the alacrity with which he delivers a stiff drink to wash down that pre-flight Lorazepam. What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that without in-person reinforcement, the Cathay appeal has exactly zero staying power. Nobody bases an airline decision on manners or fashion-forwardness. These are things that do not matter, except in the rare instance where several carriers boast the same exact pricing and scheduling.
I do appreciate how the online videos strain to forge some kind of personal connection. Nadia used to break out in song behind her schoolteacher's back; Kelly used to wander around at an amusement park in an "oh, the wonder of it all!" daze; Barbara used to be a motorcycle-driving journalist who reported on what appears to be mid-intersection house explosions. Somehow, the clips convince viewers that these experiences have vested the individuals in question with superior customer-service skills. Nicely done.
So all the talk about forging a "personal connection" and having a lifelong "passion for helping people" doesn't feel too phony. Pouring out tea at tense times, talking heartbroken passengers through pre-boarding breakups, stealthily upgrading a girlfriend by transferring over her fella's frequent-flier miles - the folks at Cathay Pacific seem pretty darn okay to me. But I'm still flying with whomever's cheapest.