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MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS Last modified on November 16, 2009

What's yours called?

Robin Stone discovers more about airport mascots and how they are being used to boost the image of gateways across the globe.

They come in all shapes and sizes. They’re generally affable, colourful, and always distinctive. And they play a major role in how airports are perceived, both by the customers who use them, and by the local community.

But we’re not talking here about customer service stalwarts who unflaggingly sort out hundreds of different problems every day, nor about the friendly faces of airport check-in staff.

These characters don’t talk, walk or gawp, in fact they’re not even human. They’re uniquely different. Welcome to the world of the airport mascot.

In Japan, where at least eight airports have their own mascot, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Kutan, for example, is a lovable little aviator fetchingly attired in a brown flying suit, red scarf and bright green goggles.

He was introduced at Narita in 2005. A competition to name him attracted an amazing 10,000 entries, and the newly-born star promptly promised: “I will be working hard to promote Narita Airport, and hope to make lots of friends.”

Kutan even has his own CV on Narita’s website, where he’s described as an enthusiastic, friendly male whose dream is “to become a superhero”. His main role in life, according to the CV, is “to keep everyone using the airport happy”, but in reality he’s an effective marketing tool designed to familiarise people with the airport.

What is a mascot? The dictionary describes it as a talisman or a supposed bringer of good luck, and while that definition may carry some weight with superstitious cultures where ill omens, lucky numbers and religious mysticism are part of daily life, the role of the airport mascot today is rather different.

In recent years airports have been taking stock of the effect of their operations in two critical areas: the local community and the local environment. They want to be perceived as customer-friendly and environmentally friendly, so what better way of getting these twin messages across than via the happy smiling face of their own mascot?

So, rather than acting as good luck charms, mascots are helping promote the fledgling ‘green aviation’ industry, and frequently pop up on posters and billboards advertising a cleaner, more responsible, aviation environment.

They have the added benefit of being hugely popular with children – the customers of the future – and often feature in promotions with local schools where climate change is a recurring subject for classroom discussion.

Mascots are also used, as part of a wider marketing strategy, to help fill aircraft seats, which is why they’re frequently seen in travel agents’ brochures and online booking sites.

Tokyo Narita is not unique in using a cartoon-style character to appeal to children. Nashville has a similar scarf-and-goggles aviator mascot called Commander Berry Field, who was chosen to spearhead the airport’s $35 million terminal renovation programme back in September 2006. Nashville International was known as Berry Field in its days as a military base, reflected in its three-letter airport code, BNA.

Projects such as these – Nashville’s first major renovation for 20 years – are invariably accompanied by extensive marketing programmes designed to underscore the positive aspects of expansion to the local community.

Commander Berry became the public face of the project, replacing ‘Captain Harmony’, a uniformwearing mockingbird that had served as the airport’s mascot since 1998.

When on official business, ‘Commander Berry’, a fighter pilot, is played by TV actor Steve Good, who dons a brown and grey flying suit and bright yellow goggles. You certainly can’t miss him as he meets passengers in the terminal.

“He’s just a way of helping to convey a message and put a face on it. He’s embraced by the whole community – not just kids,” says airport spokeswoman Lynne Lowrance.

When Humberside Airport in the UK wanted to promote the opening of its new independent travel agency, Sunflower Travel, to the local community, there was never any doubt who was going to be the guest of honour.

Airport mascot ‘Humphrey’ was the star attraction, entertaining children at the opening while their parents were given the lowdown on Sunflower’s services and its relationship with their local airport. He’s become a popular figure in the region and is used by the airport’s trade relations team at a variety of different functions during the course of the year.

For years mascots have been most closely associated with the world of sport. Virtually every professional ice hockey, baseball or football team in North America has its own mascot, the English Premiership is riddled with them, and they’ve been around on the Olympic stage since the Munich Games of 1972. Nowadays, however, mascots are commonplace in many other walks of life, so it is hardly surprising that they’ve made the transition from sports arenas to airport terminals and arrivals lounges.

Like their sporting counterparts, airport mascots come in all forms, shapes and sizes, from the cute and cuddly to the robotic. At least three airports have aircraft mascots – Japan’s Aso Kumamoto Airport has ‘Asora-kun’, a colourful character who wears a hat in the form of a smoking volcano; Frankfurt’s is called ‘Fluggi’ (whose name was also adopted by a local restaurant; while Phoenix Sky Harbor International has ‘Amelia the Airplane’.

Amelia gets a human helping hand from PR staffer Peggy Kreus, who often steps into the costume at community events, such as the airport’s recent Customer Appreciation Day, the opening of the regional light rail system and at Arizona Cardinals football rallies held at Sky Harbor.

“We pride ourselves on being America’s friendliest airport,” says public information manager Julie Rodriguez. “Amelia the Airplane is a great way to present a friendly face to our customers.”

Robotic mascots were used in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympic Games to greet passengers at Beijing’s Capital International Airport. Known as ‘fuwa’ mascots, they originally adorned T-shirts, key-rings and balloons, but then evolved into five working robots when Beijing’s new Terminal 3 opened.

Fitted with built-in microphones, these robots can have basic conversations with passengers, reciting over 100 sentences in Chinese or English.

In 2008, they performed simple greetings in 12 languages, sang Olympic songs, and recommended local tourist attractions. They also sported screens on the front, displaying flight information.

Designer Gao Qingji enthuses: “The five mascot robots combined the Olympics with high-tech technology. We wanted to give passengers a warm welcome at the airport – their first stop in our country.”

Children have played an important part in the evolution of airport mascots, but Copenhagen has taken the idea one stage further. Mascot Max has literally thousands of different identities – drawn by Danish schoolchildren.

The best efforts are posted on the airport’s website, one of which receives a special prize in a monthly draw. It’s all part of Copenhagen’s focus on young passengers, which includes play areas, shops and many other facilities for children.

“We receive drawings from all over Denmark,” says Anette Haaning, communications director of Copenhagen Airports. “We’ve also had entries from the United States, Sweden, France and even India. Copenhagen connects Scandinavia with the rest of the world, so we focus on the many children who travel through our airport. In addition, we want to involve the users of our website.”

Just occasionally, an airport will adopt a live animal as its mascot, a custom more traditionally associated with the armed services. The problem here, of course, is that they have only a limited lifespan.

One airport to find this out the hard way is Virginia’s Campbell Field Airport whose mascot Tommy, a fluffy brown dog, died suddenly a few years ago. Such was his loss that he had his own obituary that ran: “His little heart just could not keep up with his busy social schedule. It was not a surprise as his health was deteriorating, but we will miss him very much.”

So what next for airport mascots? Will the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) adopt a big apple? Surely Amsterdam Schiphol should pick a tulip, and is Zurich missing out by failing to recognise that a cuckoo clock would make a great mascot?

Who knows, but one thing for sure is that the airport mascot is here to stay and it now seems that it will only be a matter of time before we are all asking, what’s yours called?

Airport World 2009 - Issue 5

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