eDataSource, the leading provider of competitive intelligence data in the email and social media space monitors the email and social media activity of thousands of brands, among those the largest passenger airlines. We analyzed email activity and email marketing efforts of the largest airlines as a basis for this analysis

We ranked the top North American airlines by number of passengers as derived from the Annual World Airline Report for the top North American Airlines and then looked at email activity from August 6th to September 5th and compared communication frequency per traveler. This gave us some interesting insights into the airline industry’s communication strategies. Please refer to the chart below for an overview of the information we used for our analysis.

Airlines and Sending Domains

Passengers in 2010

Estimated list size

Detected open rate

Inbox Placement

 Estimated* emails opened

Passengers w/email

Delta Airlines
e.delta.com

162,615,000

10,010,000

13.28%

97.18%

1,329,328

6.16%

Southwest Airlines
luv.southwest.com

106,307,000

16,210,000

14.89%

97.22%

2,413,669

15.25%

United Continental (Continental)
email.continental.com

99,452,000

4,450,000

14.56%

92.89%

647,920

4.47%

United Continental (United)
info.united.com

99,452,000

2,680,000

17.97%

91.63%

481,596

2.69%

American Airlines
email.aa.com

86,204,000

6,430,000

8.97%

95.00%

576,771

7.46%

US Airways
myusairways.com

51,853,000

4,330,000

13.19%

95.64%

571,127

8.35%

AirTran Airways
go.airtran.com

24,721,000

7,090,000

6.91%

96.33%

489,919

28.68%

JetBlue Airways
promo-em.jetblue.com

24,254,000

5,110,000

12.16%

95.71%

621,376

21.07%

Air Canada
email.aircanada.com

23,615,000

1,030,000

15.90%

91.93%

163,770

4.36%

 

Before diving into this data, it is important to note that some of these airlines utilize multiple email sending domains intended for different purposes that are not purely focused on airline passenger communication and promotions of airline tickets. Some examples are AA’s frequent flyer program, AAdvantage, and Southwest Vacations both of which have been excluded from this comparison. For other airlines, some loyalty program messages and travel agency services are mixed in with the general stream of email and thus not possible to exclude from this comparison.

With that said, there are some interesting conclusions to be drawn from this data. First, the open rates among these airlines range widely from approximately 7% for AirTran to around 18% for United Continental. Some of this difference could be explained by looking at the relative list size compared to total passengers, but then again, Jet Blue retains the second largest portion of their passengers’ emails and still it maintains an open rate above 12%

Secondly, it is interesting to see that the sending list size for these airlines is in many cases only a fraction of the yearly number of passengers, indicating that many airlines have not done a good job of acquiring email addresses. This is especially interesting in light of the fact that so much of the airline ticketing has moved from traditional travel agents to ecommerce. One would think that this would make acquiring email addresses easy, but only the low-cost carriers JetBlue, Airtran and Southwest seem to have capitalized on this opportunity for marketing and communication purposes.

Now, who is doing the best job when it comes to email marketing? Two companies stand out from the rest in this study. Southwest and JetBlue as the most effective email marketers. This is due to impressively sized email lists and relevant enough marketing messages to keep their open rates respectively at 12% and 15%. Although the open rates by themselves are not impressive the fact remains that these airlines have some of the largest relative percentages of their passengers’ email addresses and thus are marketing to a wider spectrum of their total passenger group with the same or better open rates that their competitors. On the other hand, AirTran captures almost a third of their passengers’ email addresses, but fails to be compelling enough in their messages to have their recipients open their communications. They should take a look at their email frequency, promotion strategy and overall segmentation. Maybe AirTran can figure out how to get more relevant about their messaging so that more than 7% of their customers on average open the email they send them. This might be a great opportunity for their marketing efforts.

Probably the least impressive email programs come from American Airlines, United-Continental (United) and Air Canada. Lagging open rates (except for United) and low percentage of known email addresses for passengers indicate a general lack of focus on this important channel amongst many of the airlines.


What did we learn?

The airline industry is unique because of the opportunities it has to capture email addresses from passengers, not only during the ticket purchase process, but through their loyalty programs and alert programs as well. The largest carriers have a lot to learn from JetBlue and Airtran in respect to email address capture so that they in turn can use email as a stronger marketing channel to a larger portion of their prospective passengers. But list size is only one of the challenges. Messages have to be relevant to the sub-segments of your list to get interacted with. Open rates are generally a good measure of interactivity, and none of these carriers are capturing the attention of their audience in an impressive way.  The habitual reliance of traditional airlines on travel agency networks and brand advertisement may be partly to blame for their lacking list sizes. The low cost carriers on the other hand have focused on the efficiency of Internet marketing and ecommerce to survive and thrive and their focus on these channels shows in this quick study.

No channel really competes with email in terms of ROI. Maybe it’s time for the airlines to divert some more of their marketing dollars to email, grow their lists, test, segment and concentrate on what is relevant to their consumers. Focusing on special offers, better service notifications and informative passenger information could be a good start. Perhaps today is the day to call a meeting with the whole IT team to figure out how to make sure all the email addresses that floating around in the system are being captured and put them to work. The low cost carriers are currently winning the race in email marketing because they realized that list size and penetration into their target customer group is the key to successful messaging.
Sources:
The performance data used for this ranking is from eDataSource, which uses a listening platform and a consumer monitoring panel of over 800,000 consumers to gain insight into actual consumer interaction with emails from thousands of brands. The information in this blog is derived from estimates based on aggregates of these individuals email interactions and our own monitoring of the email and social media space. The passenger data used comes from the World Airline Report 2011**. Email performance data has not been verified by the airlines in question.
*This column refers to estimated average number of individuals who would open a campaign sent to the airlines full list. eDataSource accumulates aggregated information on consumers interaction with email from commercial senders through a panel of over 800,000 consumers in addition to their email and social media listening platforms
**Air Transit World: World Airline Report (annual), July 2011.

 

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