March will see the first tranche of $50 million (€47.99m; £31.16m) of creditors’ cash spent by United Airlines on a marketing campaign touting the “experience” of flying with a bankrupt airline.

United, currently languishing under the protection of Chapter 11, is planning an estimated $50m national campaign to distinguish the airline from its rivals.

UAL’s director of worldwide marketing communications Jerry Dow asks rhetorically: “What's the difference between the major carriers? Not much. That's why there's no strong brand preferences among consumers. We want to give customers a reason to believe United is different from our competitors.”

The airline’s agency Fallon in Minneapolis will work together with crisis PR specialist Gavin Anderson & Co in New York. But many onlookers believe they will have their work cut out to impress a skeptical public that UAL is different – let alone better – than its opposition.

It could be money down the drain, says crisis management expert Eric Dezenhall: “I have found image advertising in crises to be an exercise in self-congratulation, not damage control. If United answers the question for consumers, 'What's in it for me?' it may be worth the risk. But if it's an ad featuring a little girl with daisies in her hair hugging a pilot, it won't cut it.”

But, argues Fruman Jacobson, a lawyers whose firm represents United’s unsecured creditors: “[United] require loyal customers and need to keep up with the competition, which are always advertising.”

Creative development consultant Michael Markowitz agrees: “United can't afford not to advertise. Going silent will only fuel the flying public’s worst fears about their financial condition.”

Data sourced from: USA Today; additional content by WARC staff