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MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS Last modified on May 22, 2014

Marvellous mascots

They may not quite be super heroes, but airport mascots are growing in number and popularity as gateways look at increasingly innovative ways of communicating with the public, writes Robin Stone.

Bangor International has Monty the Moose, East Midlands has Travelin’ Tim, and the spirit of Mayday lives on at Augusta Regional, three years after the pooch she was named after went to the big kennel in the sky!

All three characters have played starring roles in bringing their local airports closer to the travelling public and to the local communities they serve. They’re all airport mascots.

Their duties are many and varied, but – not surprisingly – it’s younger travellers with whom they can form an instant bond. They can be a godsend to harassed parents, for it’s the airport mascot who’s invariably around to supervise in airport play areas.

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the first mascot, or the identity of the pioneering airport. There were certainly mascots around in the 1970s, when a bear called ‘Gary Gatwick’ made his debut.

Indeed, the bear’s image was still promoting airport privatisation in the UK in 1986-87, and bizarrely even had a child named after him, when airport staff found a 10-day-old baby abandoned on the floor of a ladies’ toilet. 

Badges featuring the same bear were also issued as Harry Heathrow, Stanley Stansted and Gordon Glasgow.

At Helsinki, mascots play a key role in guiding passengers through the airport as quickly and efficiently as possible, particularly when the X-raying of liquids – such as baby food in cartons or glass jars – means that security screening takes longer. 

“During holiday flight departures, a children’s mascot takes care of families and guides them to the designated line for children,” says airport director, Ville Haapasaari.

Augusta Regional has even made one of its sadly-departed ‘employees’ an airport mascot who will interact with the airport community for years to come.

Mayday, a border collie who chased birds off the runway at Augusta for 10 years, died in 2011 – but her name lives on.

“Mayday transitioned from a domestic household pet to a dog whose job it was to protect people,” says former handler Tina Rhodes. “She was a wonderful dog, dedicated to her job and everyone loved her.”

School children interested in temporarily ‘adopting’ Little Miss Mayday – a fluffy black and white replica of the canine heroine – can write a one-page essay explaining why the stuffed dog should go on their family vacation. Four young fliers are selected each year.

”This will help promote aviation in the hearts of the young and old alike,” enthuses the airport’s communications manager, Lauren Smith.

Meanwhile, last summer, Birmingham Airport in the UK unveiled Zoom, its first brand mascot. Zoom is a life-size blue sky cadet, part of an airport brand initiative aimed at making the departure lounge experience more fun for families. 

It offers children – from toddlers to teenagers – an interactive area where they can play and learn. Called ‘Sky Side’, the airport states that the ‘interactive’ experience that takes children on a journey from check-in, turning them into sky cadets like Zoom. 

Meanwhile, the departure lounge’s interactive Sky Zone has touch-screen tables, a ‘gazing station’, musical light beams and a story-telling pod to help children complete their Sky Pass. 

Beth Gawthorpe, Birmingham Airport’s marketing manager, says: “This was a unique concept which had to sit alongside our corporate brand identity, but with a completely different look to target younger passengers.”

Some mascots stand the test of time for years, others are replaced in ‘refresh’ projects. When East Midlands Airport wanted a new mascot to represent the airport in the community, it asked students at Castle Donington Community College to design a replacement for Rascal Rabbit, who had been hopping around the airport for eight years. 

When the winning entry – ‘Travelin’ Tim’ – had been selected, the design was modified to tie into the EMA brand. A full-size mascot costume, complete with back pack, was manufactured and ‘Tim’ was off on his travels. 

Rascal Rabbit is not the only airport mascot to have been given the chop. At Nashville International Airport, Captain Harmony, a uniform-wearing mockingbird who had served as the airport’s mascot since 1998, was also given his marching orders.

The good captain was replaced by Commander Berry Field, a new mascot which will serve as its public face in the community. The decision coincided with the airport’s first major facelift in 20 years.

“The new mascot builds on the name and rich heritage of Nashville International,” says airport spokeswoman, Lynne Lowrance. The gateway was called Berry Field when it served as a military installation, reflected in its three-letter airport code, BNA (Berry Nashville).

The new commander is represented as a vintage fighter pilot, complete with bomber jacket, goggles and scarf. “He’s someone who can be embraced by all the community – not just the kids,” says Lowrance.

And when Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport embarked on a major security upgrade back in 2002, the project was ‘overseen’ by Sam the Eagle. The character, dressed in stars-and-stripes overalls, was chosen to communicate to passengers why the project was so vital.

Sam appeared on signs explaining why the work was going on, and helped to direct traffic around construction sites.

A regional airport in Florida even decided to use its mascot to promote a new master plan. It is believed that ‘Valkaria Bob’ – an animated airplane – first appeared in the early 1990s, but had made no real impact until 2005, when members of the public approached the Valkaria Airport Advisory Board about an airport logo.

An old sketch of the ‘happy airplane’ was rediscovered, and Valkaria Bob was reborn. He played a leading role in the campaign to get the master plan approved – which it finally was, in 2007.

 

And, when Boeing chose Narita to launch the first commercial flight of its new 787 in October 2011, the airport’s own mascot – a young boy dressed in a red scarf, pilot cap and goggles called Kutan – was there to entertain the public.

Also making regular appearances at Narita is Unari-kun, an immediately recognisable character in and around the terminals because he’s a cross between an aircraft and – of all things – an eel. 

A larger-than-life figure in the community – his moniker is designed to combine the Narita name with ‘unagi’, a local delicacy of grilled eel – he can often be seen around town doing his bit for the tourism industry to promote sightseeing attractions and special events.

Heathrow Airport’s work in the social media arena last year – particularly via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – was celebrated by the creation of a new mascot called Heath. 

He sprang to life after Heathrow featured in the Social Brands 100, which recognises brands which lead the way in social media in the UK. 

Fostering good customer relations and working in the community have always been high priorities for airports worldwide, and Southern California’s Van Nuys Airport is no exception. It produces colouring books and activity brochures for children as part of a wider customer relations campaign designed to be both fun and educational.

The campaign is spearheaded by Vinny, a child-friendly educational airplane. Parents and teachers are encouraged to take their children along to Van Nuys, where Vinny will accompany them on an airport tour. The airport also offers help with older students interested in an aviation career.

On rare occasions, the mascots seen at airports don’t actually belong to the gateway at all. Some airlines, for example, have their own mascot on duty at airports and, in recent years, an increasing number of Olympic Games mascots have turned up to welcome arriving athletes and spectators.

One such carrier is Bangkok Airways, which last year introduced five cartoon mascots to target young travellers – Sky, Sunshine, Rocky, Willy and Daisy. The quintet even starred in short animated films shown in the airline’s lounges and on the in-flight entertainment system. 

Puttipong Prasarttong-Osoth, president of Bangkok Airways, says: “The idea of the mascots was to expand our customer base by focusing on a younger target group.”

When the Olympic Games came to Beijing in 2008, passengers were greeted by ‘Fuwa’ robot mascots. Using built-in microphones, the robots could conduct basic conversations with passengers and recite more than 100 sentences in Chinese or English.

They also spoke simple greetings in 10 other languages, gave directions and recommended local beauty spots, while screens on their ‘stomachs’ displayed flight information.

Gao Qingji, the robots’ designer, said: “We designed five mascot robots to combine the Olympics with high-tech while giving passengers a warm welcome.”

In fact, they proved so popular that they quickly developed their own fan club, and one passenger interviewed at the time, Li Jia, enthused: “The mascot robots represent our country. They are so smart, you can take pictures with them or talk to them. I like them.” 

So there you have it, never underestimate the power of a mascot!

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