Airline objectives include establishing brands and promoting loyalty and other marketing programs.
Although the one-two punch of industry consolidation and the escalating price of oil have created some turbulent times for airlines and passengers alike, sponsorship activity has continued to increase and stands to benefit from the first of those factors.
With business and leisure travelers returning to the skies as the economy recovers, nearly all of the major carriers in the U.S. have expanded their sponsorship portfolios over the past year. Those deals include pro sports teams, community events and nearly everything in between.
What’s more, the recent round of mergers in the category is expected to drive more activity as companies look to promote new brands and operations.
At United Continental Holdings, Inc.—where United will become the single airline brand—those connected to sponsorship decision-making at the former United Airlines and Continental Airlines, Inc. expect the consolidation of those functions to be finalized in the next few months.
For their part, Southwest Airlines Co. and AirTran Holdings, Inc. just closed their merger on May 2, with the elimination of the AirTran brand not beginning until next year (see Sidebar).
The flurry of recent activity in the category includes Frontier Airlines’ new partnership with the LPGA, its first national sponsorship. The airline was purchased in 2008 by Republic Airways Holdings, Inc.
In addition, JetBlue Airways Corp. this year came on board as a first-time sponsor of New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival, while Delta Air Lines, Inc. just took two-year title of MLB’s Civil Rights Game in Atlanta and expanded its partnership with U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn. with a tie to the NGB’s new U.S. Freeskiing unit.
On top of that, United has signed new multiyear deals with the MLB Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants and renewed an existing partnership with the Chicago Cubs.
As in years past, airlines are sponsoring primarily to accomplish four primary marketing objectives: boost visibility in new markets, demonstrate community support, build relations with frequent business fliers and gain business from sponsored properties.
As an example of the last two objectives, United’s new MLB partnerships include entitlement of club suites and other exclusive members-only areas, as well as team charter service.
In addition to domestic carriers, U.S. properties also are seeing more interest from sponsors based outside the U.S., such as Emirates Airlines, which last year inked a tie with USA Rugby.
“More and more international brands are looking to extend their presence in the U.S., which could lead to unique opportunities for those properties that appeal to a global audience,” said David Wright, vice president of global sponsorship with Soccer United Marketing, Major League Soccer’s marketing arm. American Airlines has sponsored MLS since 2008.