American Airlines Wants People to Drink Like They’re in First Class—Even If They’re Not Flying Yet

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For some travelers, a glass of chardonnay some 35,000 feet in the air is as ubiquitous as free pretzels and peanuts. 

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Most airlines have a longstanding policy of complimentary drinks as part of the premium paid for a seat in first class. But when the pandemic shuttered nearly all air travel—and kept elite-tier loyalty members stuck at home—bottles of expensive Spanish and Portuguese wine and French Champagne began gathering dust.

“We had a great surplus,” said Alison Taylor, chief customer officer at American Airlines. 

So, the carrier came up with a solution: a wine club, named after the brand’s premium class experience Flagship.

Flagship Cellars, curated by the airline’s sommelier (yes, the airline has a sommelier) Bobby Stuckey, will sell an international mix of whites and reds as either a collection or part of a monthly subscription. The selection is culled from the same stuff served in the brand’s lounges and onboard flights.

“This is another way to generate activity with people as well as keeping them engaged with American, even if they may be flying only once or twice a year,” Taylor said.

And although there may not be another airline with a wine club, the concept is not a new one in the brand marketing sphere. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal each tout a wine subscription service. Martha Stewart launched her own in 2017 with the help of artificial intelligence.

It gives them a little taste of what you can enjoy if you’re in business or first class.

Alison Taylor, chief customer officer, American Airlines

While the airline hopes to sell a few bottles—aiming for more than $40,000 in sales this quarter—more importantly, it wants to remind flyers that the brand’s premium experiences do in fact still exist, despite the pandemic that has cost the industry billions.

“We want to keep Flagship alive when the lounge is closed,” Taylor said. “This is a way of engaging with people so that they can understand and enjoy it, even if they’re not flying. It also gives them a little taste of what you can enjoy if you’re in business or first class.”

The importance of premium passengers

Those Flagship customers are important. While premium passengers only accounted for about 5% of pre-pandemic airline travel in 2020, they represent nearly 31% of global airline revenue over that same period, according to the trade group International Air Transportation Association.

American is mostly marketing the club to its own AAdvantage loyalty network—following a trend throughout the travel industry—the size of which Taylor declined to divulge. 

Airlines are usually secretive about the size of such programs, but the pandemic has given some hints. For example, AAdvantage is big enough that the airline was able to put it up for collateral to secure a loan over the summer, with an appraised value somewhere between $18 billion and $30 billion. United Airlines also revealed to investors that its program was worth over $20 billion when it mortgaged its own MileagePlus network to secure a loan.

Travel has yet to recover completely and likely won’t until 2022. But for the few who are flying, airlines are trying to convert them into loyalty members, bringing them into the fold to access their coveted first-party data and send them direct marketing communications. Since March, according to Taylor, the airline was converting roughly 40% of new flyers to the airline’s loyalty program. 

In the meantime, American is offering its elite members complimentary wine tastings, and the airline’s top corporate clients will be getting bottles as well. 

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