Dutch airline KLM is going full throttle to engage with its passengers through wacky promotions and good-natured bets.



The oldest European airline is getting young and adventurous. Space journeys. Wacky social media initiatives. Crazy bets. Dutch carrier KLM is certainly livening up the skies these days as it dreams up zany ways to engage with its passengers.

In March, frequent fliers were asked to take part in a quiz. The prize was a chance to orbit in space.  On offer were five tickets aboard the SXC Lynx spacecraft, scheduled to take off from Curacao in 2014.

“It's a two-seater craft — the passenger and the pilot will accelerate into space,” says Pieter De Man, General Manager, Indian Sub Continent, Air France-KLM.

KLM has always had a slightly naughty image. Decades ago, it won a legal battle over its right to distribute liquor (Dutch Gin) stuffed inside miniature blue houses — real copies of the gable houses alongside the canals of Amsterdam — as gifts to its business class passengers.

But now with social media the airline is getting flirtier and flightier. “Can you imagine any airline taking on a bet over Twitter?” grins Pieter.

Last spring, KLM scheduled its inaugural flight to Miami for March 27. But a Dutch DJ tweeted to the airline that the date was too late as most music lovers would miss spring break events in the US city.

“We tweeted back, challenging the DJ to fill the plane and that if he could do that, we would fly on the date he wanted,” says Pieter.

In five hours, thanks to some assiduous social media networking, the DJ managed to get 150 passengers to sign up and KLM kept its promise, flying a week ahead of schedule.

KLM has been unleashing one unusual campaign after another on social media — be it KLM Surprise where it stalked passengers and surprised them with gifts, or its Stewardess Yourself application where you can see how you would look as a KLM flight attendant. But it was its Meet and Seat social media app this March that got the world talking about it.

The airline promises to match passenger profiles and seat like-minded souls together. “The programme is on for the Delhi-Amsterdam flight too. It's almost like your matrimonial service,” says Pieter.

On a more serious note, Suraj Nair, Marketing Manager (India), Air France-KLM, says it's born out of a customer insight that many passengers do want to network on an eight-hour flight.

Full throttle on India

India is the market where the Dutch airline has launched the latest in its chain of social media campaigns — KLM Predictions, an application that suggests a destination to passengers based on their Facebook, social and interest graphs.

This focus on India is not surprising — with conditions in Europe tough, the carriers there are looking eastwards. Witness Finn Air's Bollywood jig mid-air last Diwali. “India has huge potential. Even a percentage — whatever the percentage — of a 1.3-billion market can be attractive,” admits Pieter. But at the same time he is outspoken about how the conditions are getting tougher for international airlines in India — the last straw, he says, was the recent steep hike in landing and parking fees at Delhi airport. “We will have to relook at our operations,” he says grimly. Yet, despite this gloom, he points out how the airline is still going all out to woo Indians.

Realising that Paris is perceived as an unfriendly airport by Indians, it has initiated a meet-and-greet service at Paris, where four Indian sari-clad hostesses receive passengers and help them with their connections.

In July, he says, Paris will get even easier for passengers flying Air France-KLM as it is integrating all its operations in one terminal — Terminal 2E. “The three piers we have got are called K, L and M — and it's sheer coincidence,” he grins. All of KLM's long-haul flights will land here and it will be good for passengers as there will be no moving from terminal to terminal, he says.   

This Mother's Day, Nair says there is a special promotional offer for Indians — those who book stand a chance to win a ticket for their mom as well. Results will be announced on May 13.

But even as Air France-KLM goes the extra mile to do all these things here, Pieter de Man, who has logged four years in India already and 33 years in the KLM fold, is experienced enough to know what passengers  really want. And that is a cheap ticket. “Ultimately, it's about price. Airline tickets are bought only on the price factor,” he says, and “Indians love a deal.”

However, with the Gulf carriers also getting aggressive and pitching the price card, KLM is also positioning the ease of travel and seamless connections to grab the Indian passenger's attention. “I can offer seamless connectivity to Europe, North America and South America,” he says. Africa too — Air France connects to French-speaking West Africa, while KLM connects to English-speaking East Africa, he points out.

And literally every day, he says, KLM is tweaking its offering. The minute recession hit the world, for instance, and the airline realised that its corporate clientele was downgrading to economy in an effort to cut costs, the airline introduced ‘Economy Comfort' class. “That's seeing a lot of traction from India,” says Nair.  True to its zany marketing, KLM got magicians to create awareness for the new class. At Heathrow and other airports, a special pedestal was created where the magician appeared to be seated on thin air — just to show how comfortable the seating was.

“We believe in being innovative. It's hard to say what are our next plans are, we get crazy ideas, it evolves as we go along,” grins Pieter.

(This article was published on May 9, 2012)
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