LONDON, August 13—It’s a little more than a year since an Air France Concorde crashed shortly after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport, leaving 113 people dead and prompting regulators in Europe to ground the supersonic jets. But now Air France and its partner British Airways are preparing to reintroduce Concorde service, and pulling together a team of marketing and public relations professionals to make sure the public understands all the effort that has gone into ensuring the airplane’s safety.
British Airways agency of record GCI Group will be part of that team, working on both sides of the Atlantic to make sure the airline’s messages are heard—although GCI’s European chairman Adrian Wheeler is quick to point out that the in-house communications team at British Airways has done “a tremendous job” of keeping Concorde passengers informed addressing all the safety issues that arose in the wake of the French crash.
“The re-launch is a major priority for British Airways,” says Wheeler. “But it will be handled with a lot of dignity. It will be very low key.”
The Concorde marketing effort will be led by brand manager Wendy Turpin, who oversees the airline’s first class marketing, and kicked off in earnest this month with the selection of direct marketing agency Tullo Marshall to handle a direct marketing campaign that will target frequent Concorde passengers. The airline has already been in contact with 1,500 of the most frequent fliers, and invited the top 50 to Heathrow to inspect the modified planes.
Passengers received a guided tour of the plane’s underside from the chief engineer, Claud Freeman, and according to published reports “inspected the undercarriage, tugged at the electrical cabling, and inserted their heads inside the fuel tanks on the aircraft’s delta wings to examine the new bulletproof lining inside.”
According to Wheeler, that uniquely personal approach to issues management was made possible because Concorde is so exclusive. It tends to attract a very small number of passengers who use the supersonic service, which cuts three hours off a flight from London to New York, on a regular basis. That may also be an advantage when it comes to the reintroduction.
“I don’t think there’s any trepidation, because the people who fly Concorde are generally pretty clued up,” he says. “They are the kind of people who investigate what they read, and who are more than usually interested in the reality behind the appearance. And British Airways at the corporate level has gone to great lengths to get the facts out, to explain all the steps it is taking to ensure safety, and to make safety its top priority.”
Concorde first took flight in 1976 and boasted an impressive safety record until last year. In January of 2000, two British Airways Concordes made emergency landings at Heathrow—one because of an engine problem and another because of a fire alarm—and just days before the Air France crash, BA admitted it had found “microscopic” cracks in all seven of its Concordes, and that the cracks on one plane had widened to the point that it needed to be grounded.
Investigations into the crash concluded that a tire explosion, caused by a strip of titanium debris left on the runway at de Gaulle, sent pieces of rubber flying, and that a fuel tank was penetrated, causing a fire in one of the engines. In response, BA has spent £17 million to modify the fuel tanks, lining them with a Kevlar and rubber compound to contain fuel if the skin is punctured. Test flights began in January, and have gone off without a hitch.
That cost is minimal, considering that some industry experts believe Concorde represents £20 million in annual profits to BA.
“It is absolutely essential we do this correctly and appropriately,” a British Airways spokeswoman told The Guardian newspaper. “BA has a reputation for safety and we will seek to build on that and reassure passengers. All the communications for Concorde will stress that safety is paramount. We are very fortunate that Concorde markets itself as a brand and an icon and has a worldwide profile.”
The precise timing of the reintroduction will depend on regulatory decisions.