Once upon a time, the commercial aviation world was populated by so-called flag carriers, massive government-owned airlines that served their countries’ inbound and outbound flying needs.

Today, in a market of widely diverse business and leisure travel airline offerings, a few flag carriers still roam the earth – some of them more nimble creatures than others. Here are some takeaways from two recent flights.

Air Tahiti Nui: the fresh bloom of youth

As I boarded the Air Tahiti Nui plane, the cabin crew handed me its beautiful brand ambassador: the Tahitian tiaré flower. I tucked the small, white bloom behind my ear, where its gorgeous gardenia scent lasted the eight-plus hours of the flight to Papeete from Los Angeles (the airline’s North American hub).

The tiaré shows up in some of the cabin interior’s upholstery and lends its name to the airline’s frequent flyer program (Club Tiaré). Its scent even infuses the refreshing moist towel that precedes meal service. This simple, organic amenity gives the airline a powerful symbolic and physical brand and provides the customer with a sensory memory that lasts far beyond the flight.

More than 60 percent owned by the government of French Polynesia, Air Tahiti Nui has only been in operation since 1998, and still has the glow of youth about its offerings. Its modern Airbus fleet is named for islands of French Polynesia, like Bora Bora, where I was headed this past spring to stay at the Four Seasons Bora Bora.

Welcoming aircraft interiors are decked out in the aquas and blues of the Pacific. Flight attendant uniforms resemble resort wear more than airline staff togs: colourful, loose floral-printed dresses and shirts that put the largely leisure-travel customer base in immediate vacation mode.

On this relatively small airline I was delighted to find seatback entertainment even in economy class, where half a dozen recent Hollywood movies complemented more culturally tailored audio selections, including Tahitian, French and Japanese channels of music.

The bilingual English-French Air Tahiti magazine made a good portal for my journey, with its articles on Polynesian cultural traditions and an emphasis on the airline’s own commitment to sustainability and local communities – important features in a region this small and environmentally fragile.

Upon arrival in Papeete’s open-air airport we were greeted with live Polynesian music, ocean breezes and another fragrant tiaré flower. The only elements that took the bloom off my experience were pre-flight: For LAX embarkees, online or self check-in and advance seat selection weren’t available. And since many Papeete-bound passengers had boarded in Paris the aircraft was largely full, leaving me at the back of the Airbus for the long flight.

Though the airline’s online service features are a bit limited, it uses social media like Twitter and Facebook to promote packages, deals, media coverage, aviation news and local events. (For instance, this past June, it tweeted to reassure passengers during a short-lived strike.)

Royal Air Maroc: missed opportunities

My international trip on Royal Air Maroc – from Montreal to Marrakech, then return from Casablanca to Montreal – was no short hop, at around eight hours each way. Unfortunately, the inflight entertainment experience didn’t quite match the richness of the culture of origin.

Created after Morocco declared independence in 1957, RAM can be credited as a force in opening up African routes over the years and for its continuing innovations. (Recent announcements position it as the first airline in Africa to offer self check-in kiosks.)

The airline, of which over 95 percent is owned by the Moroccan government, shows its colours in cabin crew uniforms in blue, with delicate embroidered motifs evoking the red and green of the Moroccan flag and jacket tailoring reminiscent of a djellaba, the traditional North African robe.

Outbound, the J-class cabin’s audio feed didn’t work, rendering a mainscreen showing of The Joneses mute; on my return the mainscreen in my economy cabin remained stubbornly dark the entire flight.

At least the outage was a good opportunity to check out the trilingual (English, French, Arabic) inflight magazine, which promoted a (heavily edited, one would suppose) version of Sex and the City 2. Curiously, it failed to mention the film was largely shot in Morocco as a stand-in for Abu Dhabi. Why wouldn’t a flag carrier want to tout a Hollywood blockbuster’s affiliation with its country?

Even had that rusty old mainscreen IFE system been working, offerings are somewhat limited: A couple of Egyptian movies and channels of Arabic and Andalusian music do little to brandish its North African credentials.

Royal Air Maroc’s hub is the rather rundown Mohammed V (CMN) in Casablanca, where a feral cat stalked across the Executive Class check-in red carpet. The stunning Marrakech Ménera airport (RAK), with its canopy resembling a giant mashrabiya screen, is a much more pleasant and on brand passenger facility. Hospitality brands like the luxury hotel La Mamounia seem to understand that Morocco’s  brand is a selling feature and have opened their own arrivals lounges at RAK.

Photo by Markhillary via flickr

Online the airline misses an opportunity to promote its own customer-friendly features. For instance, only by asking at check-in did my companion and I discover the steal-deal of a $600 one-way Executive Class upgrade between YUL and CMN – normally around a $5,000 price difference. Given what it has to work with, Royal Air Maroc is leaving money on the table.

Flag Bearers

It’s a weighty responsibility for a flag carrier to be a cultural ambassador for its nation. These two flights demonstrated the potential for national airlines to use technology, marketing and good old-fashioned service touches to drive successful customer diplomacy missions.