Southwest Airlines: In a Category of Its Own

By Robert Mark on October 5th, 2008

I had a ringside seat last week to many of the inner workings at Southwest Airlines when I was invited – along with a bunch of other journalists – to the airline’s media day. No matter how many times I interact with Southwest employees, they continue to amaze me. Southwest jetwhineAnd apparently they amaze quite a few other folks too because Southwest’s Nuts About Southwest blog won Best Corporate Blog of the Year from PR News this week.

I cut my flying teeth at a more traditional airline and in a number of corporate flight departments. As a chronicler of the aviation industry these days, I, like the rest of the media actually, see myself as one of those eternal critics of the world.

Honestly I have for years been wondering how the people at Southwest Airlines could possibly keep this different kind of airline running year after year and make money each year as well. And this airline is different in many ways, from their focus on low-costs to their never ending need to find that happy balance between costs and delivering a service that keeps passengers coming back.

A panel discussion at the Media Day luncheon provided a few insights when a number of travel industry experts gave us a little crystal ball gazing before they took questions. My friend Evan Sparks covered much of the detail of that panel at his blog the other day. What really grabbed me though was when one of the panelists explained the few existing airline categories. “There are only three,” he said. “Legacy airlines, low-cost and Southwest.”

One Category Explained

I thought about those words as I walked around the halls at Southwest HQ in Dallas last week. If you haven’t been there, I can tell you it’s a bit like walking into the house of a huge family. Nearly every inch of wall space is covered with pictures of employees and their families … new kids, marriage photos, the works, as well as memorabilia from every year of the airline’s history. I found it impossible to not stop and catch up on the lives of some of these people.

Golden JetwhineOn one wall there was a simple poster that explained why I think Southwest Airlines is in a category of its own.

The slogan – a version of the Golden Rule – may sound a bit corny in this day and age. But that’s the nice thing about Southwest folks. They don’t get hung up worrying about that kind of thing. They’ll try almost anything to keep employees focused on the mission of being the low-cost leader in air travel. The sign said, “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

And that’s why Southwest is so successful. They actually do treat people the way they would like to be handled … sort of like we’re, well, people. They’re friendly on the phone – thank you Becky in the Houston reservation center BTW – and they’re friendly when you get to the airport and the airplane. That’s worthy something to me because I didn’t cause the airline’s woes and I resent employees focusing their unhappiness or indifference about the time I walk up to the ticket counter.

Hello American … I’ve Left the Building

In my work these days, I spend a lot of time behind a keyboard and a camera. Most airline terminal time for me is usually wasted with the impossible tasks like trying to find an outlet to charge my iPhone or run the laptop, let alone a place to sit if I do. For me, that’s a lot of downtime.

So American Airlines, in case you’re wondering why you lost me as an Advantage flyer – you did notice that I was gone, didn’t you? – I’ll tell you it came down to a simple chair and a power plug.

A year ago, Southwest began putting these crazy rocking chairs near the gates at Midway. At first, people seemed to ignore them, probably for fear of being accused of stealing a comfy seat from a senior. Then they started grabbing them. And they wouldn’t give them up until boarding time. So crazy Southwest Airlines put more of the darned things at MDW.

Chair JetwhineAnd then the airline began putting counter space and stools right at the gates for people to put a laptop on and outfitted each place with dozens of power plugs, for free.

But then, it happened.

The Southwest Airlines folks went over the top at MDW and started installing big cushy chairs, just like those massage chairs you’ll find at some airports, but for free. And these seats had power plugs … and a little table next to them. They let me sit down like a real grownup and get some meaningful work finished before the flight boards. And now that I don’t have to get into the cattle line – sorry SWA, I never liked that part of the boarding process anyway – I can work away right up until they call my number.

As a frequent flyer on Southwest, I can use my miles on any flight that’s open. American used to route me through some awful places late at night or at the crack of dawn when I tried any Advantage travel.

Some people think Southwest Airlines is the best airline around simply because they haven’t taken the plunge and added a fee for everything under the sun. Many of the other majors have forgotten that if you make passengers mad enough, they won’t come back. Clearly few of them care. But Southwest seems to. They send me a little booklet of free drink coupons every few months, just to say thanks. They don’t have to do that. Sure is nice though.

The economists will tell you that the likes of American and United and Delta and the rest are simply adding fees to recoup their losses from the rotten economy and the high cost of fuel. Sorry folks. Not my problem. That old airline economic model was broken a long time ago. Now it’s simply a matter of which of the legacy airlines is going to die first.

I think that if I can watch Lehman Bros. and Merrill Lynch and WaMu say WaHoo for the last time, I can live with United closing its doors too.

When our airline – the original Midway – went under in 1991, at lot of my pilot and flight attendant friends moved on to Southwest. I didn’t. I always wondered how life would have been different today if I’d followed my friends.

Looking at the Southwest now many years later, I’d say this big family has done a pretty good job of running a successful airline by focusing on the basics, the kind that keep people coming back.

Southwest has three simple priorities that, luckily for Southwest, their competitors refuse to adopt. The most important people are the airline’s employees, then customers and finally shareholders. That sounds like a crazy strategy to some, but it’s pretty tough to argue with success isn’t it?

Watch out business aviation. These guys are after us.


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Thanks, Rob Mark


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3 Responses to “Southwest Airlines: In a Category of Its Own”

  1. Ron Says:

    I will be interested to see how Southwest fares once their fuel hedges run out.

  2. Brian Lusk Says:

    We are so glad that you were able to make it down here for Media Day. It was great talking with you.

  3. Joe Says:

    More companies (not just airlines) need to take a good long look at how Southwest does business. It’s frankly surprising more don’t because Southwest is unique in many respects.

    Many companies tend to forget about the customer. Yes, you heard me right … they forget about the customer. Focus is lost and companies start spending more time and resources creating spaghetti which eventually turns into big balls of spaghetti.

    I think a major reason for this is company ownership. When you own the company delivering a service or product, amazingly, that customer becomes much more important.

    Creating big balls of spaghetti is not longer important because, hey, those customers which actually hand over cash to us to provide them with something other than big balls of spaghetti will actually hand us even more cash tomorrow and next week.

    As a result, we should take care of those customers and actually deliver what they want.

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