Airlines as Cultural Representations | Silver

It’s been a long time since my last post…Good to be back here to talk about commercial aviation. I have previously mentioned, in my first blog, that different airlines can be seen as distinct agents that represent the cultures of their home countries. I made this point totally out of my observations. When I boarded my first few flights almost a decade ago, I started to notice different seat decorations of different carriers. It was not until later years that I figured out some meaning out of these ostensible differences. For example, hidden behind the cloud-shaped figures imprinted on seats of Air China is the oriental philosophy that promises happiness and tranquility; ANA’s signature boarding music Another Sky brings a taste of traditional Japanese music, ongaku, to its passengers. Yet as I think about the subject deeper, I have found out that the footprint of an airline’s culture extends far beyond explicit manifestations of national symbols. As you will see in the three case studies below, both the indigenous, regional culture and the internal corporate atmosphere have huge impacts on almost every dimension of an airline’s operation and the product it delivers. The cumulation of every little cultural detail, in turn, shapes the identity of airlines and helps them differentiate from their competitors.


ANA Onboard Japanese Meal Selection from Tokyo Narita to Shanghai (Picture taken by myself) 

A frequent flyer of United, I have found a level of striking uniformity and transparency across its global network. The company always provides standardized, consistent customer experience and cabin amenities so that you will always know what to expect, often with little or no surprise when you travel. For example, the unoccupied seats will always be available to all customers without preferred seats being “locked up” by airport authorities for various reasons; whether you are in Newark, Guam, or Lagos, the layout of check-in counters and even the format of boarding/inflight announcements are almost exactly the same. Not only can this uniformity be attributed to the airline’s global reach, but it can also be viewed as necessity to simultaneously cater different needs even for different U.S. domestic groups. The American diversity also clearly manifests in United’s digital media advertising, which, to a large extent, emphasizes the merit of a group of diverse people working together to deliver the same goal – the safe, reliable transportation  of passengers to their destinations. In a sense, as the hospitality standards of different people vary, universal convenience is something that all travelers look for. As a result, while United is at times picked for its lack of good service, it does offer state-of-the-art mobile app, reservation system, and call center. The focus on the basics indicates the feeling of practicality deeply rooted within the country. After all, commercial aviation industry has a longer history in U.S. than most other places in a world.

While United represents a standardized culture of a huge global carrier, innovative U.S. low-cost carriers have also built unique cultures as their niches. Southwest, a legendary airline with short history but striking profitability, is a perfect example of them. Fifty years ago, the company’s founder and first CEO Herb Kelleher had a vision of an air carrier that puts its entire focus on people, and this people-centered culture still defines Southwest today. At Southwest, corporate executives treat employees as “internal customers” and strive to create and preserve an atmosphere that encourages all employees to care for each other and treat their colleagues with dignity and respect. This intentionally maintained “good feeling” among employees can turn out to emanate and have a larger impact on customers. For example, as noted by a Forbes contributor Carmine Gallo, a Southwest agent was able to make an exception and allow family members to accompany a person bound for “military deployment in Kuwait” all the way to the gate, instead of before the security checkpoint. Jokes and even entertaining songs are not uncommon in Southwest’s daily onboard passenger announcements. Essentially, the employees are brining a sense of relaxation and fun from inside their company to the external passengers that they serve. This relaxing atmosphere is only complemented by Southwest simple, innovative boarding process and all-737 fleet. In fact, the simplicity and fun have already grown to become the defining Southwest culture that help travelers ease a little bit of the pressure commuting in the air. The laughter of all people, from pilots to flight attendants to passengers, makes this brand stand out.

(JetBlue also follows a similar culture-shaping strategy and has successfully branded their “Blue culture.” But I will not go into further details of this.)

Clearly, United and Southwest have developed over time their distinct corporate cultures that make them immediately recognizable. The third example I’m introducing, Cathay Pacific, has more of its culture being grounded in the company’s home – Hong Kong. While the above two carriers demonstrate more about their own uniqueness, Cathay Pacific is more indicative of the culture of its region. Although Cathay’s extensive network enables it to provide a similarly uniform travel experience and consistent branding as United, their operations are not nearly as transparent. Having gained many accolades for its exceptional service quality, the company very much focuses on some easily neglected areas of passenger experience, often, for example, offering complimentary last-minute upgrades or special treatments in celebration of passengers’ birthdays or important anniversaries. However, beyond the superficial oriental hospitality are hints of more profound cultural implications. In fact, Cathay Pacific devotes many of its branding and marketing endeavors to exhibit to travelers the best of Hong Kong. As a former British colony and now a Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong has always been a place where Chinese and Western cultures collide and intersect. In a sense, Hong Konger’s anti-colonialism, fear of the unknown Chinese communist regime, and heritages of their Chinese descent together shape a distinct “floating identity” of Hong Kong, through which people seek a balance point between autonomy and dependence (both with regards to the British and the Chinese.) This special psyche is well represented in Cathay Pacific, perhaps the most globally recognized Hong Kong brand. On one hand, Cathay’s onboard cuisines usually feature a mixture of Chinese and Western styles, serving food like “Yan-Lie,” the modified version of omelet. On the other hand, its combination of a streamlined Western corporate management and a nuanced focus on service details satisfy both the British shareholders and demanding travelers from Asia. Still, Cathay’s recent advertising campaign of a theme named “life well travelled” seems to portray the company as a well-positioned in-between-point of travelers’ hustles. As Hong Kong University scholars Challen and Georgina Margaret noted in their joint study, Hong Kong has been, and will continues to be, a city of “transients” that is distinguished by its “port mentality.” The presence of Cathay Pacific certainly epitomizes the city’s incomparable mobility, in its transportation of people, its flowing of ideas, and its unique “floating identity.”


The New Liveries of Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon 

I continue to hold a belief that air travel has its special charm. Ultimately, airlines serve to connect people together, helping them travel a long distance in relatively short time. Whether people travel for business, vacation, or family affairs, the time in-the-air always seems like a vacuum, a place named “nowhere.” The airline culture is there to provide seasoned travelers a sense of familiarity and deliver a hint of the new, exciting destinations to others. Interestingly, such a common business practice has so many forms of cultural ramifications.

Thanks for reading.

Here is a link to a Hong Kong University dissertation that elaborates further on how Cathay Pacific relates to Hong Kong’s unique identity.


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2 thoughts on “Airlines as Cultural Representations | Silver

  1. wbdrisco

    I had never really thought too much about the idea of airlines as representative of cultures, but it completely clicks. Having flown often during my childhood and continuing to fly more than your average American today, it’s interesting to see the differences in Airlines such as Qantas versus Delta through the lens which you have described. I’m curious though, in your mind, is there any specific airline which you prefer due to its culture?


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