Airlines mark business milestones with flights of fancy

In-flight theatre, special trips and lower fares offered as part of carriers’ celebrations

Two actors sing Love Me Do while performing in-flight theatre to mark Icelandair’s 80th anniversary | Glen Korstrom

While most airlines aim to cut costs wherever possible to lure passengers with competitive fares, they will sometimes ease up on the purse strings to mark a significant anniversary or milestone.

Those special moments can be a good excuse to offer slashed-fare promotions or to spend money in a way that will catch the imagination of passengers by touting something out of the ordinary, such as an in-flight theatre performance or a cross-country tour in a vintage airplane.

Air New Zealand appealed to its passengers’ demand for cheaper flights when it held a one-day 75th-anniversary promotion in partnership with Flight Centre in 2015. The first 70 people in line at Flight Centre’s Howe Street location were eligible to buy $475 round-trip tickets on specific non-stop flights that the airline flew on its Vancouver-to-Auckland route.  Five others were allowed to jump the line and get the special fares. 

On November 1, the airline took a different route to mark its 10th anniversary of flying out of Vancouver International Airport. It staged a traditional Maori haka dance on the tarmac outside the airplane as a way to entertain passengers.

Air Canada’s (TSX:AC) way of marking the 80th anniversary of its first flight similarly appealed more to passengers’ imaginations than to their frugality.

Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah said one target demographic for the promotion was “av geeks” – people who are aviation history enthusiasts and plane spotters.

Days before the airline’s official September 6 anniversary of that first flight in 1937, in which its precursor flew a Lockheed Electra between Vancouver and Seattle, the airline launched the first of a series of flights with a vintage Lockheed. The public was not able to buy tickets for the flights but people could view the plane.

“The plane is only one of two worldwide that is still in mint flying condition and operational,” Mah said.

“It is the same aircraft type that Amelia Earhart flew.”

The plane criss-crossed the country, generating interest wherever it landed, she told BIV.

(Image: Air Canada’s Lockheed Electra plane criss-crossed the country in September | Air Canada)

The prize for the most innovative and interactive way to mark an airline’s anniversary, however, may well go to Icelandair.

On September 8, on a flight between London, England, and Reykjavik, Iceland, it staged an in-flight theatre performance to mark its 80th anniversary.

Some of that “immersive theatre” performance continued on the same plane as it made its way from Reykjavik to New York.

“We wanted to do something special for our passengers and, at the same time, we wanted to do something that our staff could participate in,” said Jón Skafti Kristjánsson, the airline’s director of marketing and business development.

He explained that the airline’s executives were brainstorming on how to mark the anniversary when they came up with the concept of hiring actors from London’s Gideon Reeling theatrical company and involving employees who wanted to volunteer to act in a role during the theatre performance.

“We did research and we found that most flyers are quite bored when they’re flying,” Kristjánsson told BIV.

“They especially dislike when they are going through security or waiting in lines or are at the baggage carousel, or just sitting in an aircraft doing nothing. So we wanted to act on that insight and aim to transform this wasted time while travelling into what we call time well travelled.”

(Image: Traditional Maori haka dancers entertained passengers on the tarmac in front of an Air New Zealand plane on November 1 | Air New Zealand)

The Icelandair play centred on the character of Edda Johnson, who was a real-life flight attendant at the airline in the 1950s.

The character appeared in a vintage uniform at London’s Heathrow Airport as passengers were getting boarding passes and checking luggage.

Another character was a passenger, Alex Jonsson, played by an actor in the same Heathrow check-in lineup who was dressed as though he had just come back from backpacking in Vietnam. The character believed that it was 1999 and interacted with passengers as though the internet were a new thing.

The Jonsson character, whose real-life counterpart is Johnson’s grandson, tore open his bag frantically as he got close to a ticket agent and fretted aloud that he had lost his passport. Then he asked people in line whether they thought he could get on the plane without the passport.

(Video: Icelandair puts on an immersive theatre performance on its September 8 flight between London and New York via Reykjavik | Icelandair)

Other actors in the performance played characters who thought it was 1969. Two of those sang 1960s-era folk songs both in the airport and on the plane.

Many seats were left vacant on the plane so the 20 to 30 actors could wander around and sit next to passengers to chat and tell their stories.

The end result was that the passengers got a sense of Icelandic history as well as Johnson’s family tree.

The play’s climax was in an airport lounge in Reykjavik, where there was a party.

Kristjánsson said many people at the airline were skeptical that authorities would give the green light to the initiative because there are so many safety regulations.

Feedback from that September 8 flight has been overwhelmingly positive, Kristjánsson said.

He said the airline is considering putting on similar events in the future, but added that the cost of doing so may prevent that from happening.

The flight itself kicked off a season of events held in Iceland that the airline is sponsoring.

As an incentive for travellers to stop over in Iceland for up to seven days, as they make their way between Europe and North America, Icelandair is adding no extra charge to fares for the stopover.

Those who purchased a stopover pass for this fall are entered into draws to get tickets to various Icelandair-sponsored events.

One winner got tickets to an October 9 football match in which Iceland beat Kosovo, thereby becoming the smallest nation ever to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. •