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Do airlines have an image problem?

By Dean Irvine, CNN
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Thu June 12, 2014
Air New Zealand has boosted its image with eye-catching safety videos, like the one pictured.
Air New Zealand has boosted its image with eye-catching safety videos, like the one pictured.
  • Airlines only just more popular than banks, says survey
  • Industry figures admit airlines must do more to create better travel experience
  • "The industry is not customer focused," says Air New Zealand CEO

CNN celebrates 100 years of commercial aviation with a week of programming presented by resident travel expert Richard Quest.

Doha, Qatar (CNN) -- When the CEO of a major international airline says that half of the passengers on his planes are "uncomfortable," you might think the carrier in question had a major PR disaster on its hands.

But what Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of Air France-KLM apparently meant by "uncomfortable" was more of the Gallic, philosophical variety; that people are just unsettled when they sit on his planes and not even an extra few inches of legroom can placate their metaphysical disquiet.

"If I give them more space, they will probably be happier, but it will not change their uncomfortable feeling because they are not comfortable in the air," he said, talking to CNN's Richard Quest at the recent International Air Transport Association (IATA) AGM in Doha, Qatar.

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Many flying economy class on any airline however might think de Juniac is spot on; that flying is just an uncomfortable, cramped experience and the worst part of travel today.

That sentiment is borne out in some recent research by U.S. PR firm Ketchum.

It ranked the public reputation of the airline industry in the United States as only just above banking, the government and the tobacco business in terms of positivity: 42% of people had a negative view of airlines, while 61% had a positive perception of the travel and tourism business.

In the hyper-competitive world of airlines, some have better reputations than others, be that through the power of the brand or genuine, good customer experiences.

For Air New Zealand -- a company that has helped to boost its image by using hobbits and cabin crew in body paint in its in-flight safety videos -- passengers cannot be thought of enough by airlines.

The industry is not customer-focused, we're too fixated on operations.
Christopher Luxon, CEO, Air New Zealand

"The industry is not customer-focused, we're too fixated on operations," said Christopher Luxon the airline's CEO. "We do have things to mitigate long-haul travel, like our skycouches, but we do have (as an industry) a pretty low innovation rate."

Many of the in-flight innovations are of the variety that make headlines and feed into the aspirational nature of flying, such as new first class cabins. But these are a long way from what the majority of fliers will experience.

And for de Juniac the experience is key and currently lacking.

From the moment a ticket is booked on a website all the way through to the moment the passenger arrives at their destination, it needs to be improved, he believes-- even if some things are out of an airline's control, such as long immigration queues and poorly equipped airports.

"The experience of travel is from 'home to home,'" he said. "We (as an industry) need to do better."

However some question whether or not the industry as a whole needs to do better to collectively to boost its image.

"The reputation of airlines in America are particularly bad, but elsewhere in the world it's seen as pretty good because it is still aspirational to fly," said Rowena Olegario, senior research fellow at Oxford University.

She also noted how hard it could be for many airlines and those in the aviation business to rally together to boost the idea of flying if many within it lament the experience themselves.

"(They) should be the champions of the industry but what I've been struck by (while at the IATA AGM) was how they complain about flying," said Olegario.

In that respect, there is at least some egalite between those squashed in economy class and some of those who sit towards the front of the planes running the airlines.

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CNN celebrates 100 years of commercial aviation with a week of programming presented by resident travel expert Richard Quest.