A country’s national airline is one of its key brand ambassadors. Qatar Airways, with its slogan: “The World’s Five-Star Airline”, flies around the globe spreading Qatar’s desired image as a nation of riches, modernity and progress. As a branding tool, the national air carrier is useful because it reaches far and wide.
But what about countries with less glowing reputations? How are their national airlines regarded around the world? How does the country’s national image and reputation affect people’s desire to fly on the national carrier?
Airlines of Horror
As a self-confessed aviophobe, there are few airlines that I feel comfortable flying on. That of course says more about me than it does about the quality of the airlines in question, but I could never imagine flying on a carrier from any country commonly perceived as having a less than a stellar attitude to safety standards. My favourite airlines are Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Cathay Pacific. The closest I’ve gotten to a ‘dodgy’ airline has been flying on Chinese domestic carriers, an experience I didn’t enjoy much. After all, it’s unlikely that the Chinese government reliably reports all their internal aviation accidents statistics. But there are airlines from certain places that truly horrify me. For example, on my recent trip to Myanmar I travelled everywhere by train and bus. I wouldn’t have boarded one of their domestic flights for all the tea in China. Reading about these airlines fills me with the same mix of horror and morbid fascination one might experience witnessing a road accident. Even if Myanma Airways had a perfect safety record, my perceptions of the country brand (poor, only recently opened up, not long ago sanctioned, etc), would discourage me from using their services.
Dubai’s ‘Terror Terminal’
This brings me to an intriguing article from Vanity Fair, in which the author talks about the notorious Terminal 2 at Dubai airport. Dubai is a fantastic hub for international travel, offering flights to almost every destination on the planet. But for some reason, there’s some serious terminal hierarchy going on. Terminal 1 is flashy and shiny, hosting the major airlines of the rich world. Terminal 2 on the other hand, despite recently undergoing a refit, is less well-equipped and has a departures board listing flights to some of the world’s most troubled and infamous destinations, Mogadishu, Baghdad, Tehran, Kabul, Peshawar, Kandahar, to name but a few. Dubai has chosen to group all these low-cost, obscure and quite possibly sketchy airlines in one location, as a ‘one-stop gateway’ to the world’s least desirable places. Many travellers apparently know Terminal 2 as the ‘Terror Terminal’, and a quick trawl of Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum confirmed this.
(photo from http://foxfromzim.wordpress.com/)
The ‘Scariana Airlines’ of the title, refers to the informal nickname for Afghanistan’s national airline, Ariana Afghan Airlines. Back in Afghanistan’s 1960s heyday, Ariana was well-regarded as a reliable, quality airline. But as communism, religion and 30+ years of conflict took their toll on Afghanistan’s reputation, so the reputation of Ariana plummeted too. Today Ariana Afghan Airlines operates a small motley fleet using ancient planes that somehow survived the war. The airline’s slogan, and nation branding attempt, ”Visit Afghanistan. See the World’s Friendliest People” doesn’t help much. Ariana flights are currently banned from EU airspace, which is always a bad sign. During the reign of the Taliban, Ariana was the main vehicle for Al Qaeda, allowing Bin Laden’s followers to pose as airline employees and smuggle weapons, drugs and twisted ideology around the globe. As Tom Freston points out, it was (and still is) the ‘airline of last resort’ for ordinary travellers. But now, intrepid travellers to Afghanistan have been blessed with the advent of flydubai, offering two flights a day from Dubai to Kabul with British pilots, low prices and a brand new fleet.