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Aeroflot, the Russian carrier once the butt of jokes about lax safety and inebriated pilots, is now the most powerful airline brand in the world, according to a leading valuation and strategy consultancy.
Brand Finance, which recently unveiled its annual Global 500 list, topped by the likes of Lego, Google, Nike, Ferrari and Visa, this week said Aeroflot outshines the biggest carriers in the US and Middle East with an AAA brand rating. While nine other airlines can boast the same triple-A score, the firm singled out Aeroflot as the most "powerful" of all, highlighting its sponsorship of Manchester United, its young fleet, and its heavy investment in marketing, particularly in Asia.
Qantas failed to make the top 10 most powerful airline brands list, but did make the top 20 list of the "most valuable" airline brands
According to Brand Finance, 30 factors are taken into account when judging brand strength, "including data points such as fleet size, average age of fleet, safety measures, number of employees, investments made by the company, financial and operating results, client loyalty as well as key industry ratings from Skytrax and IATA."
It added: "The news may come as a surprise to those in Europe and North America more familiar with Western or Gulf flag carriers. Aeroflot's brand strength stems in part from dominance of its domestic market. Its brand equity scores for metrics such as familiarity, consideration, preference and loyalty are formidable, both when compared against other Russian airlines and against foreign ones within their home markets."
Brand Finance also judges firms according to "brand value", and here Aeroflot is some way off the pace.
American Airlines is the most valuable airline brand, ahead of Delta, United, Emirates and Southwest, while the Russian carrier is just 26th. British Airways fell five places this year to ninth overall, easyJet rose two places to 19th, pipping low-cost rival Ryanair, which is 22nd.
Aeroflot's safety standards are now among the best in the industry. The website AirlineRatings.com – which judges the vulnerability of carriers according to a number of criteria – gives it the maximum seven stars, placing it alongside the likes of Qantas, and it has been involved in just one fatal accident in the past 20 years.
But it wasn't always thus. Aeroflot's safety record was once the stuff of nervous fliers' nightmares – and the numbers are truly staggering. Over the course of the Cold War, it was involved in 721 incidents in 44 years. Yes, it wasn't the only airline to suffer during the Sixties and Seventies – the deadliest decades for flying – but it was involved in far more than any other. The Aircraft Crashes Record Office reports that 8,231 passengers have died in Aeroflot crashes. Air France is next on its list, with 1,783, followed by Pan Am (1,645), American (1,442), United (1,211) and TWA (1,077).
Why was Aeroflot so accident prone? Its sheer size was a major factor. Aeroflot was once the only airline in operation throughout the whole of the Soviet Union and by the mid-Sixties it was already carrying a remarkable 60 million passengers a year. At the height of the 1970 summer holiday season, it was flying 400,000 passengers a day. By comparison, Pan Am welcomed just 11 million passengers throughout the whole of 1970. Aeroflot's figures grew yet further to 100 million in 1976, more than the likes of easyJet and Ryanair carry today.
Its all-Russian fleet was another factor. The reliability of Russian aircraft can be summed up by the fact that AirlineRatings.com continues to deduct a star for any airline that operates using only Russian-built aircraft.
The Nineties were the turning point. The breakup of the Soviet Union saw Aeroflot rapidly shrink, dividing into a number of smaller regional airlines (it carried just 5.9 million passengers in 2003, although it has since expanded to 26 million passengers a year). Those Soviet aircraft have been replaced by Western-built jets. The Tupolev Tu-154 was retired in 2009, and its fleet now consists almost exclusively of Airbus and Boeing aircraft, including 777s and A330s, both rated among the safest models by AirlineRatings.com. Its efforts to redefine itself as a modern and reliable aircraft extended to hiring rebranding consultants in the early 2000s.
Vitaly Saveliev, CEO of Aeroflot, naturally welcomed Brand Finance's report.
"Aeroflot is honoured to be named the world's strongest airline brand," he said. "This recognition reflects not just our 93-year legacy as the No.1 air carrier in the world's biggest country, but also our best-in-class service offering on domestic and international routes, the youngest fleet of any major carrier globally, and of course our marketing efforts. Our current focus is on digitising Aeroflot – whether the customer experience or the behind-the-scenes management of logistics. As we continue to deliver on these goals and others, we are confident that the Aeroflot brand will grow ever stronger and both passengers and the industry will continue to recognise it as synonymous with excellence."
Top 10 most powerful airline brands*
China Southern Airlines
Top 20 most valuable airline brands*
*According to Brand Finance
The Telegraph, London
See also: The world's worst airlines named
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