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Photomontage by Zachary Scott
The lime-parrot-green skies of Song, meant to evoke ''another place or time.''

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Song


Delta Air Lines Incorporated








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Flying in the Face of Mediocrity

By JONATHAN DEE

Published: November 30, 2003

Airplane travel is one of the black holes of American design. Walk 10 steps into any airport, and you feel yourself sucked into a kind of placelessness, a modular nightmare of function over form that ends only with your subsequent ejection into a different city. So heavy is the air of stylistic enervation that it has overcome the travelers themselves; the faces around the average airport gate resemble a Walker Evans photograph, in the shabby, heroic stoicism of those whom experience has taught to expect nothing.

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So when Delta Air Lines, in its bid to launch a low-budget, leisure-travel subsidiary to compete with smaller carriers like JetBlue and Southwest, hires as creative consultants the designer Kate Spade and her husband, Andy, it might sound -- even allowing for the fact that the Spades have built an empire by staying a safe distance from the cutting edge, cultivating a ''downtown'' aesthetic for people who never actually go downtown -- like a revolution. Andy Spade, though, insists that their proposal to create a ''boutique hotel in the air'' is really a modest one.

''Whenever I get off a plane,'' he says, ''the first thing I do is I call Kate, and she says, 'How was the flight?' and I say, 'Well, nothing went wrong.' And that's the experience we're all used to. You never say, 'The flight was great.' So we don't expect to revolutionize the entire industry. An airport is like a department store; there's only so much of the overall experience that we can control. We manage everything we can, given what the consumer expects. They don't expect a lot.''

The genesis of this odd partnership was a kind of happy, synergistic accident, proceeding from the fact that Delta and Kate Spade employ the same public relations firm. When a Delta representative visited the firm for initial brainstorming on how to make Song succeed where earlier budget carriers like Delta Express had failed, they happened to see a client list and mused aloud that the Kate Spade brand epitomized something they hoped to establish for Song: a kind of middlebrow stylishness that stood out from the competition but was still well within its customers' comfort zone. ''We understood they didn't want to be an edgy brand,'' Andy Spade says, ''but then Kate Spade isn't an edgy brand. Style and graciousness are timeless ideas. I don't believe that fashion and edginess are.''

Still, the original relationship between the two businesses went only so far: the Spades were hired to design the uniforms and accessories for all Song flight attendants and personnel. That remains the highest-profile aspect of the Spades' involvement, though the uniforms themselves won't actually encase any Song employees until February 2004. It was an unusual sort of commission for Kate Spade -- all the more so because she rarely designs clothes; she has made her name and fortune mostly through handbags and other accessories -- but she found Song, unexpectedly, a somewhat natural fit for her own sensibilities.

''Obviously it had to be practical,'' she says, ''and what was interesting was being able to infuse an element of style into that. For instance, I love three-quarter-length sleeves. I think there's something very chic and something kind of 50's about a three-quarter-length sleeve'' -- one of the coming fashion options -- ''but it also happened to work for the attendants because when they served food, their shirts were getting in the way.'' She also enjoyed the imperative to design a uniform that Song employees could afford to buy, ''which to me is the whole point of the airline. It's a nice idea: in order for something to have style, it doesn't have to be outrageously expensive. The two can live in the same world.''

Of course, anyone old enough to remember the 60's remembers that the air-travel experience, for employees and customers alike, wasn't always so stylistically degraded. Though original press releases made much of how ''the designs for Song look back to the glamour days of air travel,'' Kate says those iconic, Pucci-clad Braniff stewardesses were a model only in the abstract sense that a more stylish uniform tends to make for a more poised employee. More directly inspirational was the already-completed Song logo, which coincidentally made use of what Andy refers to as ''Kate Spade green,'' a kind of cross between lime and parrot. It's a color that predominates in the Spade design universe, a color so underutilized in the fashion world that the Spades have been able to make it belong to them, and along with it some very basic, optimistic associations, like nature and Christmas. ''It isn't trying to be downtown or urban,'' Andy Spade says. ''But when you're in the city, it's nice to see a color that reminds you of another place or time in your life.''

As he sat through the various Song meetings, though, Andy found himself thinking well outside the parameters of his original task, which was to consult on the charcoal-gray male version of the uniforms. His own background is not in fashion but in advertising -- he worked for years at agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi and TBWA/Chiat/Day -- and the more he heard about what Delta wanted to establish with the Song brand, the more ideas he came up with. In the end he was hired, he says, as ''a kind of creative director consultant,'' with his hand in everything from the ubiquitous print advertising to what he calls ''branding the gate area'' to what's said and done for Song's patrons when the plane is up in the air.

''I think of it as travel-as-style,'' he says. ''Women'' -- Song's ads are pitched exclusively at women, who make most of the decisions about vacation travel -- ''want to appreciate something on their flight that they'd appreciate on the ground. We're not trying to be Versace in the air. But travel should be an experience, and you should allow yourself to enjoy it. Right now you're offered virtually nothing.''

As for the amenities Song does offer, the airline readily admits they're works in progress. Individual satellite TV's (a perk popularized by JetBlue) are currently being installed one plane at a time; you'll also be able to play video games and download a customized MP3 playlist in your seat. The music that will eventually be piped onto the tarmac is still to come. Already up and running, and a pleasant surprise, is Song's revised approach to airline food. The tiny bag of pretzels or the petroleum-derived turkey sandwich you're given on most plane trips is almost certainly more insulting than being given nothing at all. Song attendants, by contrast, pass out menus and take orders; you have to pay for the food ($7, for example, for a decent Asian chicken salad), but you feel more than compensated just by the refreshingly human quality of the transaction. There are more arcane touches as well, like a vanilla-scented rest room.

The obvious first question about this extra effort to please passengers is the extra cost it presumably entails; in the age of online reservations sorted automatically by price, the decision about which airline to fly has become a simple numbers game, a development that threatens to make nonsense of any effort to make airline travel more memorable. But Song's prices are at least competitive; a recent round trip from New York to Fort Lauderdale, booked on short notice, cost $175.

''It doesn't cost a lot to treat someone differently,'' Andy Spade says. ''There's little gestures that really don't take a lot. The little bud vase in the Volkswagen: how much did that cost? Any more than another cup holder? All those little gestures, to me, add up to a good experience. So we looked at the uniforms, we looked at the food, we looked at the music, the in-flight entertainment, we looked at scripting what the pilots and the other people say -''

Hold on. Scripting what?

Here's where the intersection of these two remote fiefs -- the world of mass transit and the world of high fashion -- starts to make sense. In the heart of every designer, as in the heart of every C.E.O., resides a martinet's conviction that the world would run just perfectly if only everyone would get with the program and act in accordance with the boss's singular vision. So a large part of Song's branding strategy turns out to be regulating the human behavior of its employees, the sort of regulation whose success would seem to depend heavily on their viewing their jobs as something grander than, well, jobs.

Thus, Andy says, when it comes to hiring, ''we look for certain qualities that match the Song personality.'' (That corporate ''personality,'' according to Song's own advertising push, is -- wait for it -- nonconformity.) Song employees are given ''guidelines'' suggesting how to speak to the passengers and when: ''It's just helping direct them into being more personal, more individualistic. They embrace the idea. I think they're very excited about being a part of something new.''

Andy Spade is an affable, impish, infectiously optimistic man; still, a deep, familiar skepticism is aroused by the assertion that Song's employees are actually quite grateful for their employer's ''guidelines'' on how to act more like individuals. Indeed, a recent round trip on Song makes it clear that there are still a few bugs in the system. En route from New York to Fort Lauderdale, the ''scripting'' takes the form of a kind of holiday-package, ambivalence-is-not-an-option, forced gaiety. In her initial remarks to the passengers before boarding, the gate agent uses the phrase ''bright and cheerful'' three times. ''We want you to know we like our jobs,'' she adds over the intercom. ''We're happy to be here. So challenge us!''

We board a plane ''made in the good old U.S.A.,'' and before we taxi to the runway, a gate agent named Andrew leads the plane in a German beer-drinking song in honor of Oktoberfest. No time to dwell on the anxiety provoked by hearing on-duty airline personnel singing a drinking song; as the plane leaves the gate, we're enjoined by a flight attendant to ''sit back, relax and enjoy our Song.''

With no in-flight entertainment yet available, most of our time in the air is soundtracked only by that strange, dull, atmospheric roar particular to airplanes; but the flight crew does its best to exorcise this white noise's dispiriting effects. One attendant walks up and down the aisle playing a harmonica. Another tells, over the plane's intercom, a dumb-blonde joke. ''Ladies and gentlemen,'' comes an announcement from the cabin about halfway through the flight, ''if you look out of the plane on your left, we have a beautiful view of some clouds. On the right, a beautiful view of some clouds.''

''These guys are funny,'' one retirement-aged flier observes.

''Yeah,'' says the man in the seat across from her. ''That's their thing.''

Perhaps the oddest aspect of all this is that on the return flight the next day, there is no trace of branded behavior at all; the crew plays it totally straight, and apart from the cabin's distinctively irregular color scheme, nothing sets that flight apart from any other. A Song representative explains later that the animated behavior is itself being rolled out, much like the TV sets and the uniforms, and thus may not yet be available on all Song flights. Call it Total Design: if it seems doomed to frustration in the long run by the very individuality it sets out to foster, still, you have to admire any vision so powerfully obsessive that it can take for granted, at least for a while, the good will of those subsumed by it.

What Is Ted?
To create a niche brand that might eventually compete with nimbler, low-cost carriers like JetBlue and Delta's new Song subsidiary, United Airlines enlisted Pentagram Design to create a fresh name and identity. And so Ted (the last three letters of United) was born. ''We had a couple of so-obvious-it-hurts premises: white plane, simple name, really big,'' Pentagram's Michael Bierut says. From there, the name just presented itself. ''When we hit on it,'' he says, ''we realized we were onto something. We unlocked this weird puzzle that we had of how to make it seem personable, approachable, casual and fun. It was a modest miracle that there inside the United name is that nickname, ready-made.''

Unlike the others, United's little baby is not meant to be cool or urbane. Pentagram did not try to hark back to air travel's lost age of elegance. ''We didn't go look at fields of daffodils or fashion advertising,'' Bierut says.

In that sense, he regards Ted as ''the anti-Song.''

Ted will begin with 19 planes, based in Denver. There will be no first class, and when customers call to make reservations, the agents will answer the phone, ''Hello, this is Ted.'' For now, Pentagram has just done the name and the look of the planes' exteriors. Later the firm will deal with ''how the drinks, food and merchandise on-board look.'' All of it will conform to a ''regular-guy-airline'' philosophy that Bierut describes in the following terms: More Sandra Bullock than Grace Jones. More Target than Prada. More microbrew than cosmopolitan. More VW Beetle than Nissan Z Car.

Jonathan Dee, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is the author of ''Palladio,'' a novel.

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