Airlines are missing the point with their “millennial-themed” spinoff brands

Will jaunty uniforms attract millennials fliers? Probably not.
Will jaunty uniforms attract millennials fliers? Probably not.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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In the travel industry, products and services catering to millennials tends to mean “has a place to charge your phone,” “offers wifi,” and is vaguely “experiential” (aka Instagramable).

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the airline sector, where the impressive passenger growth of low-cost, long-haul disruptor Norwegian Air has spawned a raft of imitators from legacy airlines and upstarts alike, all vying for that budget-conscious, experience-minded millennial.

There’s just one problem: Building an airline to appeal to millennials doesn’t necessarily work as a long-term business strategy. At least that’s what AirFrance appears to be finding, with its new CEO Ben Smith indicating that he may shutter Joon—AirFrance’s millennial-focused subsidiary that launched just a year ago—because in part, according to Reuters, he “doesn’t understand the positioning or identity of Joon.” (For now, its planes are still flying).

Joon launched in December 2017 with four short-haul destinations in Europe, and added long-haul routes during the summer. It is certainly the most blatantly “millennial-themed” airline spin-off of late, and though it’s not as cheap as other low cost offerings, it’s less expensive than a typical AirFrance flight. In addition to promising a ”global travel experience”—which seems to mean offering in-flight entertainment and connectivity, along with transportation—its cabin crew wear a jaunty startup-like uniform, and “Joon” sounds like jeune, French word for young. But it’s not the only entrant in this game.

Level, owned by British Airway’s parent company IAG, allows fliers to pair their smartphones with an in-seat entertainment and food and drink ordering system, which allegedly gives them “control of their own experience.” After the news about Joon, industry watchers began to ask what will become of one and half year old Level, whose parent company has twice tried (paywall) to to acquire Norwegian itself.

Icelandic airline’s WOW Air—which is experiencing some financial woes of its own—held a competition earlier this year, looking for a “fun pair of individuals who are able to think big.” Translation: it wanted two millennials willing to base themselves out of Reykjavik for the summer and use the airline’s flights to travel and create content for the brand.

It’s somewhat ironic these low-cost, long-haul airlines were formed after—and many would argue, in response to—Norwegian began offering long haul flights in 2013. Because while Norwegian’s low fares may be popular with millennials looking to fly long distances on the cheap, the airline has never expressly marketed their flights to this age group. Rather, Norwegian’s proposition is centered on offering low fares to whomever will take them (including, increasingly, business travelers flying on their company’s dime) by using efficient aircraft on long-haul flights and pay-for-what-you-use tickets. They also seem to understand that offering a USB port to charge your devices on an 11-hour flight is not a unique selling point—but rather, quite essential in 2018.

That many fliers on these flights are young is not particularly surprising or unique to our time, as airline blogger and industry watcher Gary Leff wrote on his blog: ”On average, young people travel less expensively than older people. They don’t have the resources yet to travel more comfortably, their health is better, and they haven’t experienced premium travel so don’t have better experiences to compare it to. But today’s millennials aren’t any different than baby boomers in this regard.”

Indeed, this a fact that applies to many other industries that millennials have supposedly killed or disrupted. A recent study from the US Federal Reserve found “millennials do not appear to have preferences for consumption that differ significantly from those of earlier generations.” As usual, price is key.