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Why millennial-themed airlines don’t attract millennials

Colorful seats and USB ports aren’t enough to attract younger passengers.

Bene Riobó

Upholstered with brightly colored fabrics, the seats on Joon, Air France’s millennial-targeted airline, look especially chic. Flight attendants wear white sneakers, jeans, and blue polos — what the airline calls “smart casual attire.” Download the airline’s app, YouJoon, before your flight and you’ll get access to channels like Viceland and Red Bull TV on your personal device.

“The new generation of travel experience by Air France” is their tagline. And they are failing.

Although Air France launched Joon just one year ago, the company is considering shuttering it to save money. According to Reuters, Air France’s CEO Ben Smith doesn’t understand the “positioning or identity of Joon.”

What is uniquely odd about Joon is that its strategy to appeal to millennials has less to do with budget (it’s cheaper than Air France but not as cheap as a true budget airline) and more to do with flash. This is the exact opposite tactic used by the extremely successful long-haul budget airline Norwegian Air, which reported netting $1.3 billion in the third quarter of this year. All of this is to say: Millennials don’t care what the seat looks like as long as it’s cheap.

Joon isn’t the only airline employing arresting colors and smart devices to woo millennial passengers. Virgin America produced a flashy airline safety video that features breakdancers, and the European airline Level allows flyers to pair their smartphones with the entertainment console. But young flyers have proven that price, not style, drives their air travel consumption. So why are airlines making efforts to appear youthful?

Trendy planes are not new

The tactic of spicing up air travel with meaningless aesthetic upgrades is not new. Founded in 1928, Braniff International Airways, a carrier that offered routes mainly in the US, Central and South America, and some routes in Asia, rebranded with the phrase “The end of the plain plane,” in 1967.

A Braniff commercial boasted that their flight attendant uniforms were designed by Emilio Pucci and their “hostesses” wore “reversible coats ... space helmets to keep out the rain, red space suits, and sometimes something a little more comfortable.” Their planes were designed by architect Alexander Girard and came in a variety of colors (“you can fly with us seven times and never fly the same color twice”), and original art was imported from Central and South America.

The goal? To appeal to the then-young boomers.

“The reason we are seeing [airlines targeting millennials] is the millennial generation represents one of the largest [generations] both in terms of population and spending since the baby boomers,” travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt says of this new generation of colorful planes.

And for Braniff, it once worked. The airline was endorsed by celebrities like Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, who starred in commercials where they say they only fly Braniff. The airline persisted for more than a decade until it shuttered in 1982 due to rising fuel costs and the Airline Deregulation Act.

Other airlines in the ’60s and ’70s also overhauled their aesthetic: In 1970, the British airline Court Line Aviation wanted a bite of the fast-growing commercial flight market, so they painted their planes in a variety of colors including yellow, pink, and purple. Their flight attendants wore trendy outfits designed by English fashion designer Mary Quant. Court Line shuttered because of rising fuel price, as well.

Airlines don’t understand the millennial market

So why are airlines like Joon failing? According to a recent study, millennials don’t spend their money very differently than past generations — they just have less of it. As a generation, millennials have a reputation for hopping on board with any product that is minimally branded, or buying into the experiential economy. But that doesn’t change the fact that millennials have lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth than baby boomers or Gen X-ers had in their 20s and 30s. That’s why a cute plane just doesn’t cut it sometimes: Millennials simply don’t have the money for a ticket.

Aviation economics expert and senior vice president of ICF Aviation Samuel Engel says trendy airlines like Joon don’t understand that millennials’ air travel priorities are pretty standard. Although flying Joon is cheaper than Air France, it isn’t cheaper than a true budget airline like Ryanair.

“What does a millennial want in an airline? A low fare and a good schedule. What does anyone want in an airline? A low fare and a good schedule,” he says. “They don’t want more purple lighting.”

But the budget airline business model is precarious as well. Carriers like Spirit or Ryanair don’t attract as much of the corporate traveler market, which spends the most money on flights. “The bet [budget airlines] are taking is that they can make up for that corporate market revenue by filling the plane with more passengers and getting passengers to buy additional services,” Engel told Vox.

Air travel has also lost most of its pomp in the past few decades. Flying is a necessary evil of travel, not an experience waiting to be had. Few people are truly excited to board a plane (in fact, some actually hate it quite a bit), so enhancing a flight in ways that don’t actually alleviate any of the built-in misery of a plane’s ergonomics, like small seats and minimal legroom, doesn’t mean consumers will pay for it.

Joon’s logic seemed to suggest that if you can make your flight seem a little nicer (with smart devices and chartreuse pillows, for example) and market it as a more pleasant flying experience, passengers would pay extra and choose them over competitors. But this is proving to be false; the bottom line is still money.

“You’ve got value-led airlines such as Jet Blue and budget airlines such as Frontier, which are able to appeal to millennial travelers because they do all the really good pricing,” Harteveldt says. “But no one is flying those airlines because they do or do not have power outlets.”

He adds that shiny new branding and amenities is a way to divert attention from the fundamental hardships airlines are facing. Fuel accounts for 17 to 22 percent of an aircraft’s operation costs, and the price of jet fuel has gone up 50 percent in the past year. All airlines are struggling to turn a profit, and low-fare carriers are not immune to that.

But there isn’t a simple solution to these problems. “Sometimes,” Harteveldt says, “it’s easier to work on these marketing initiatives that give you lots of pretty things to show investors than to fix some of the core strategic issues.”