Thursday, October 07, 2004

In Praise of Southwest Airlines

There's nothing like a trip on United to make me miss Southwest.

I confess. I am one of those people who really likes to fly on Southwest. I am in awe of the business model and the straightforward execution. They do exactly one thing: fly full planes on profitable routes. They do it with good cheer under challenging circumstances. Everything else is secondary to that objective. I know that I may be in a minority here, so I'll focus on three things that Southwest lacks and explain why their absence doesn't bother me. Then I will mention some things that Southwest does uniquely well.

First, Southwest doesn't pre-assign seats. Seating is open, and the seat you get depends on how close to the front of the line you are. People who would obviously not fare well under these rules, like families with young children and those with medical conditions, get to board first. In my experience, I have found that as long as I am in the second (of three) boarding groups, I can get a window or an aisle seat. This is as we would expect, since two thirds of the seats are window or aisle seats. Yes, I admit that the anxiety sometimes gets to me, but consider the payoff. In exchange for imposting a little anxiety on me--a basically organized and prompt person--this policy makes Southwest an unappealing choice for people who like to show up late. You have heard the quip, "If you never miss a flight, then you are spending too much time in airports." Guess what. Catering to those people makes it very difficult to operate an airline efficiently. Better that they fly someone else.

Second, there is no first class and there are no upgrades. Wonderful. Keeping track of all that stuff is way too complicated for most airlines. Today, when I checked in at the United kiosk, it asked me if I wanted to upgrade or get a seat with more legroom. So every person, regardless of whether they would be interested, has to answer these questions. What a waste of time and a needless distraction that could confuse some people. Better to focus on filling up a plane full of identical seats.

Third, there is no food service. This complaint reminds me of another quip, "The food is terrible and the portions are small." No airline has ever gotten food service in coach satisfactory. Airports are filled with food courts and shops. Better to let each person bring on board whatever s/he wants to eat and leave the cost out of the ticket price. Food service also imposes a logistical burden. Better to let the plane leave 5 minutes earlier than to have to make sure that the right type and quantity of food was delivered. Less time on the ground means more flights and more reliable scheduling.

And then there are the things that Southwest does right. The frequent flyer program is completely sane. Travelers earn a point for going to a destination. Collect 16 points in a year, and then you get a free ticket that you can use on any flight on any date that isn't blacked out during the next year. There is no wondering about whether the airline will make available enough seats on a particular flight. There is no need to keep track of miles or to think about alternative ways to spend them.

Southwest also only flies B737's. No need to worry about whether the crew is trained to operate this type of aircraft or the other. No need to be careful of substituting equipment at the last moment for fear of wrecking the pre-assigned seats. Southwest also avoids the largest and busiest airports in most metropolitan areas in favor of satellite airports--Manchester and Providence instead of Boston, Oakland and San Jose instead of San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami, Islip instead of New York City, and Midway instead of O'Hare. Major airports have major delays. An airline cannot make money with the planes on the tarmac.

Southwest also will only fly to a city if it can have 10 or more flights per day. This means that it can do maintenance and refueling at the outlying airports rather than the hub. This allows for much smoother execution, since there is more competition for resources and risk of a bottleneck at a hub.

I have been following the airline industry as a hobby for quite a while. Southwest is seldom if ever acknowledged as the best airline. Airlines are typically ranked based on passenger miles or revenues. What's the point of obtaining a dollar of revenue if it cost two dollars to get it? What's the point of flying a passenger mile if you lose money on it? Southwest is not the leader in these categories. But it is the leader where it counts. Check out the market caps of all publicly traded airlines on this page. No other domestic airline even comes close.

I think I get so agitated about this issue because there are always airlines in Chapter 11 lobbying the federal government for a bailout. I have a lot of respect for people who work at airlines. What they do is not easy, and most of them do it sincerely. But there is no compelling reason why taxpayers should have to repeatedly subsidize unsound business practices.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to add something. I've never seen employees so cheery on a flight. They're always in a good mood, and cracking jokes over the speaker.

Anonymous said...

I am puzzled. I flew Southwest a couple of times, and each time was so bad that I promised to myself to never do it again. After a few years, the resolved would weaken, and I would try again -- only to get the same result!

I hate it, absolutely hate it, that they don't have pre-assigned seats! The lines or nervous people eagerly awaiting the boarding remind me of the old Soviet Union (where I had a misfortune to grow up). Since I left the Soviet Union, I have not felt like a speechless animal -- until I flew Southwest! These lines are just nauseating. The prospective of standing in those lines is disgusting; the sight of people spending 30-40 minutes in those lines is scary.

The point is not that I care about a particular seat that much. The point is that I don't want to be competing for a seat with another passenger. I want a basic dignity of knowing that I've got my seat, and that nobody will take it from me, even if they show up at the airport three hours ahead of time and stand for an hour in line by the gate. I want to be treated like a civilized human being, not like some refugee camping for hours in a fancy airport.

Disgust. That's all I feel about Southwest and their business model. Never again.

Anonymous said...

I fly out of houston whcih has a strong southwest and continental presence. I don't like southwest because 1) the upholstery in many planes is old and ugly, 2) the jokes the stewardesses tell over the PA are annoying, not funny, 3) it is more difficult to standby on an earlier flight (you risk losing your seat on hte original), and 4) in the airport if the first point of customer contact is unhelpful it is impossible to escalate your case to a manager they are not around. Continental always has red-jacketed bosses around. oh yeah, 5) the free 1st-class upgrades on Conti are nice, SW can't do that.

I don't really care if the company that provides me a service makes a profit or not, I just want a good product at a low price.

Anonymous said...

I have also always been fond of Southwest. I've been flying with them alone since I was 17, and I've never had a problem.

Reading a couple of the other comments though, it is obvious that this is not the case for many people. For instance, my boyfriend cannot stand Southwest, although I haven't been able to pry the reasons out of him.

One person said that the lines in Southwest remind him of growing up in the old Soviet Union. He used words like nauseating and disgusting, obviously growing up in the Soviet Union left him with such a psycological dislike of these kinds of lines that cannot be overcome. I can assume that he does not pre-order movie tickets for opening night releases for the same reasons.

This seems to be a better reason to me however, than the last poster, who said that they did not like the plane's seating material, the corney jokes by the employees, and other such smaller concerns.

It shows just how badly he is missing the point when he says "I don't really care if the company that provides me a service makes a profit or not, I just want a good product at a low price."

If a company does not make a profit, it will go out of business. End of story. I don't care how many times the government tries to bail them out, eventually they will either adapt to a more Southwest-like way of doing business, or they will fold. A "good product" at a "low price" is not impossible, but it is very dependent from person to person, depending on what they consider a "good product" to be and the "low price" they are willing to pay.

Anonymous said...

I tend to fly whichever airline is cheapest to my destination. Often with varied results, and almost always with one long sprint through an airport terminal.

I love Southwest for in-Texas business travel, and if I were flying to Portland, OR more often instead of Eugene, I'd fly it all the time. I don't mind the queue, I can get my boarding pass up to 24 hours before the flight, , and I don't have to worry about things. Show up, sit down, eat penuts, arrive mostly on-time.

Southwest treats flying as what it actually is: glorified, faster bus service. The larger carriers don't serve food anymore, are late more often than Southwest, and often charge more. I'm unwilling to pay a premium for an assigned seat. If TSA is going to make me show up early anyway, I might as well just stand in line and take the first Aisle that I can grab. Screw the extra $150 for the assigned seat in 7C, I can take 15C instead without much difficulty.

Anonymous said...

Southwest is a wonderful airline, but you need to know how they work as opposed to traditional airlines to make your trip less stressful. has a great piece on how to effectively fly on Southwest:

Also, the new trend is to use a service company such as to secure your A Boarding Pass which will give you control over your seating (the About article mentions as well)

Anonymous said...

Southwest Airlines is the most fat un-friendly airline, I'm sure. I hate it, really. I had a horrible Southwest experience last summer. The service is terrible and the on-line check in is complete suck. I will never ever fly Southwest again!