The Airline Second Front:
A Ground War for Flyers
MARCH 1, 1987 -- The airlines have opened a second front in their never-ending battle for the loyalty of frequent flyers. Welcome to the ground war.

After decades of ferocious dogfights over in-flight niceties great and small--Remember the sleeper-seat skirmishes of the late 1970s and the recent amenity-kit wars?--the airlines have brought the battle down to the ground. And the major weapon in this land-based loyalty campaign is perhaps the most valued business travel amenity of all: convenience.

Several carriers recently have introduced coordinated ground-based services designed to ease the transition from airplane seat to rental car to hotel room. The airlines are convinced they can woo frequent flyers more effectively with simplified reservations systems and one-stop baggage-transfer schemes than with fancy meal services or free newspapers.

"Business travelers have become cynical, they’re immune to in-flight frills now," says Richard Marston, a travel consultant to four Fortune 500 firms. “They’re convinced all in-flight service is basically the same. Now airlines are looking to win business travelers with ground considerations. Any airline that makes the airport-to-hotel experience a little less irritating and time-consuming is going to win customers."

Of course, winning the frequent flyer’s loyalty on the ground instead of in the air is not a completely new idea. But the latest round of airline service offerings goes far beyond the occasional free limo or helicopter transfer to the airport. For example:
        UAL Inc., parent company of United, Hertz and Westin, is testing the "synergy" of those three components. In Denver, a major United hub, United passengers returning Hertz cars can receive seat assignments, boarding cards and baggage checks at the Hertz return counter. Passengers can then proceed directly from the car rental return area to their flight gate. A similar one-stop arrangement for flight check-in is available in the lobby of the Westin O’Hare Hotel in Chicago, another important hub.
        Lufthansa passengers in Germany and Austria can check baggage and receive seat assignments and boarding cards at special counters in the lobby of Inter-Continental hotels in Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Hamburg and Vienna. Kempinski, the airline's hotel subsidiary, is also installing the service. It soon will have full-service Lufthansa check-in desks at the Gravenbruch (suburban Frankfurt), Vier Jahreszeiten (Munich) and Atlantic (Hamburg) hotels.
        Delta passengers at the airline's Atlanta Hartsfield hub can check baggage and receive boarding passes at a special check-in area in the parking lot. They then proceed via shuttle bus directly to their departure gate.
        Alitalia has launched a hotel check-in program, Spazio AZ, with Italy's CIGA hotels. An Alitalia check-in desk at CIGA's Principe di Savoia in Milan already provides baggage check and boarding card services, and the airline plans to offer a chauffeur-driven car to AZ passengers en route to Malpensa Airport for flights to the United States, Canada and South America. Alitalia says it soon will install check-in desks in the lobbies of other CIGA properties.
        TranStar has opened a full-service ticket counter in the parking garage across from its hub at Houston Hobby Airport. The counter offers ticket sales, baggage check, flight check-in, seat selection and shuttle service to the TranStar departure gates.

But no airline has jumped into the ground war with more fervor than SAS. The Scandinavian carrier's SAS Destination Service (SDS) probably offers more ground services in more places than all other airlines combined. Launched last summer in conjunction with SAS-owned and SAS-affiliated hotels, the SDS program covers sixty-two cities on four continents.

"Our intention is for SAS to make the leap from an air-travel company to a complete travel service," says SAS vice president Kjell Fredheim. "We are convinced the competition for full-fare frequent business travelers is going to be decided on the ground.”

The crux of SDS is to offer business travelers one-call-does-it-all service. In most cities SAS serves, full-fare flyers can order tickets, arrange ground transportation and confirm reservations in a first-class or deluxe business hotel with a single call. Full-fare travelers are then offered a slew of ground service amenities at no extra charge.
        Complete airport check-in, including seat assignment, boarding pass and baggage check, at 31 hotels. Besides SAS-owned lodgings, properties such as the Inter-Continental (Zagreb and Athens), Okura (Tokyo and Amsterdam), Hyatt Regency (Riyadh and Jeddeh), the Plaza (New York), Ritz (Lisbon) and Portman (London) are part of the program. SAS flyers who reserve SAS hotels receive express check-in and checkout, room upgrades and early check-in and late checkout.
        At the airports in Copenhagen, Oslo and Gothenburg, SAS provides a lounge near the baggage claim area where passengers can check in to their SAS-affiliated hotel while waiting for luggage. SAS plans to expand this unique check-in service to Stockholm Airport and New York/Kennedy later this year.
       At 24 international destinations where ground transport from the airport to the hotel is difficult to arrange, SAS operates its own limo service. The competitively priced service can be confirmed and paid for at the same time flight arrangements are completed. In addition, Hertz rental cars are available at special rates at all SAS destinations.
       SAS passengers who do not check luggage and are booked on an overseas flight departing from Copenhagen, Stockholm or Oslo may check in as late as fifteen minutes before departure.

A computerized traffic system at Copenhagen Airport has eliminated the lengthy transfer times and excruciating walks that once plagued connecting passengers at SAS’ worldwide hub. Eighty-five percent of all intercontinental transfer passengers now arrive and depart at gates along the same pier. Transfer time has been slashed to 45 minutes.

SAS also has spearheaded a three-year overhaul of Copenhagen Airport. Although the final touches aren't scheduled for completion until April, the new CPH is already a stunner. The 50-year-old facility now boasts 17-meter-high glass walls; jazzy, neon-lit bistros; dozens of open-air shops and food stalls; and what is probably the world's first airport sauna.

The Destination Service program is already a hit with frequent flyers. In each of the first four months, about 4,000 passengers checked bags and received boarding passes at their hotel.

"In the beginning, there was some reluctance to leave bags at the hotel," says Fredheim. "After all, the airlines have been known to delay bags. But after people use it, they know it works and they appreciate the convenience of being freed from their bags during the last day of their trip."

The Destination Service is primarily designed to make the carrier more competitive in its home market. SAS hopes to regain about 30 percent of the 255,000 international travelers who bypass Copenhagen and fly to or from Norway and Sweden on other carriers. But SDS also has global ramifications.

"We're convinced the business travel market will come down to a small number of worldwide mega-carriers," explains an American-born SAS official. “All the competitors will be flying essentially the same planes to essentially the same destinations. What's going to differentiate the winners from the losers? We think it’s going to be the airlines that provide the best and most reliable services on the ground as well as in the air."

This column originally appeared in the April, 1987, issue of Frequent Flyer magazine.