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Southwest's Success Secrets
June 12, 2012 5:42 PM   Subscribe

How Southwest Airlines turns a profit 39 years in a row
posted by Renoroc (67 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Having worked with them it is because they are the Wal~Mart of airlines.
posted by fingerbang at 5:47 PM on June 12, 2012


aren't they one of the stingiest airlines out there? i havent flown with them in a while but have a mental note of never booking a flight with them ever again.
posted by liza at 5:55 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've never flown with Southwest, so I'm curious: How do their prices compare to those of other airlines? There's nothing in the article about the actual ticket prices (besides noting that Southwest doesn't charge fees for checked bags).
posted by hypotheticole at 6:01 PM on June 12, 2012


I have lived somewhere along the I-35 corridor between Oklahoma and Texas all my life. I have zero problems with Southwest and how they run their business. I'd fly Southwest over American or Delta any day. I'm never going to be a first class or business customer - I just don't fly that frequently and I can handle an hour or so in a 737 just fine. At least the seats don't feel like sitting on a paint bucket.
posted by PuppyCat at 6:01 PM on June 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I flew Southwest once and they were fine, staff were chipper and it was a pleasant enough experience. However, Ryanair (modeled on Southwest) should be burned with fire and the ground salted.
posted by arcticseal at 6:03 PM on June 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


They're bargain-basement in all sorts of ways, but then again, when I was a starving (OK, moderately underfed) graduate student in Chicago, Southwest was by far the cheapest way for me to visit my parents in CA. Sure, the multiple stops were aggravating, and there was no food, but I could actually afford a ticket (and even fly in and out of Midway, instead of hauling myself to O'Hare). Also, the flight crews had a welcome sense of humor.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:04 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Southwest is also cheaper, and, um, Southwestern, which gives it a huge advantage around here. Most other airlines ask a fortune to go anywhere to/from Albuquerque, and you've almost always got to go through a hub, which adds hours to the trip. Southwest only asks a small fortune ($300 round-trip, usually) to go direct. I don't know anyone who flies another airline, except to places Southwest doesn't go.
posted by vorfeed at 6:06 PM on June 12, 2012


No change fee and no fee to check in bags. They fly out of Burbank airport and rates out of Burbank to the Bay Area are so cheap compared to the others.
posted by viramamunivar at 6:11 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


They're bargain-basement in all sorts of ways

That used to be true, but recent changes to the other airlines' practices seem to have changed that. Southwest doesn't seem to have changed at all, but everyone else seems to have lowered their standards to well below Southwest's.
posted by The World Famous at 6:12 PM on June 12, 2012 [30 favorites]


For what it's worth, I habitually check southwest's web site when I'm planning a trip and usually find that they're no cheaper than the "legacy" airlines.

(But I generally fly between big cities; perhaps that's not their market?)
posted by madcaptenor at 6:14 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Texas Monthly covered this pretty well a few months ago.
posted by Leezie at 6:14 PM on June 12, 2012


Ironically, Southwest has become a more premium airline than many of the "full cost" carriers.

I flew on American two months ago and it was a harrowing, painful experience. Uncomfortable seats with absolutely no legroom. Southwest has all leather seats. Much better legroom. No meals? Guess what: no one else is feeding you either! We got the window/aisle combo we wanted on Southwest by making sure we were part of the late A/early B boarding group and that was about it.

American also charged me $25 for each bag, each way. That's absurdly expensive to tack on to a flight.

An unsung amazing benefit that Southwest has that no one else (to my knowledge) provides is basically complete flight flexibility: I can book a flight and change it to become basically ANYTHING ELSE AT ALL with NO CHANGE FEES. Do you know how insane that is? Other airlines charge $50-$250 to make a change for later in the day. Southwest doesn't care. You pay the difference in fare, but nothing else.

Oh, and if you don't fly? If you book and then cancel? Even on their CHEAPEST fare, the funds are refunded back to you in full, as a credit for use later.

I was really hesitant to embrace their new rapid rewards points-based FF system, too, but now it's won me over. RR used to be very simple: flight 8 r/ts, get one free. Doesn't matter where on either side of the equation. This was neat because it meant with 8 round trips to California from Phoenix, I could fly to New York.

They changed it a bit to limit the number of rapid reward seats on each flight. If the seats weren't available, that was it. Lame.

The new system is a breath of fresh air. Every single seat on every single flight is available, guaranteed. You just pay the fare value x 60 in points. That's it.

Seriously, consider that for a second: I booked THREE COMPLETELY FREE flights to California from Phoenix for 7,500 points each. What airline lets you book rewards travel at such an absurdly low threshold? (I earn a point for every dollar I spend on my credit card, 2x the points on Southwest spending, and then the actual points for flights I fly, which is a much higher ratio that changes based on fare class.)

For 22,500 points, I booked three free round trips. NO ONE does that. Southwest does.

At this point, the only thing people can really bitch about is the lack of assigned seating, if that's a huge benefit to you. To me, assigned seating is a nightmare because you typically have to pay $10 more for an aisle or to be further up in the plane, or an exit seat, or what have you. It's nuts. Southwest offers auto "early" checkin for $10, but that's about it. I've never used it, and I've always gotten late A or early B at the latest. (Each group, A, B, and C, is 60 flyers. C means you're probably in the middle.)

Southwest will hand you the entire can of coke. They'll bring out multiple drinks for you. They send me a birthday card every year in the mail with four free cocktail coupons.

Seriously. I don't work for them. I don't have any stock in them. I just know that having flown the "top carriers", I pick Southwest every single time possible. Nicer people. More on-time. Better baggage handling. The closest to a pleasure to fly as you can get in domestic coach, I think, with the exception of JetBlue and their awesome entertainment systems. (But I usually have my MacBook Air for that anyway.)
posted by disillusioned at 6:14 PM on June 12, 2012 [45 favorites]


but everyone else seems to have lowered their standards to well below Southwest's.

Major carriers, anyway.

Personally I fly Virgin America as my top choice, then JetBlue, then Southwest. VA/JB have the best experience right now, IMO, and I hate having to do the Seat Grab on southwest. Pricing isn't really all that different for my main route (LA <> SF Bay Area).

I always use the $10 auto-early-checkin thing on Southwest which helps with the seat thing, though.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:17 PM on June 12, 2012


People (myself included) like Southwest because you know what you're going to get with them, and they still have good customer service. I know I'll be able to check my bags, that a soft drink in the air will be free, I can sort of choose my seat (rather than the numerous times I've "reserved" a seat with other airlines and get a different one a check in). Some things may be barebones, but at least I know it when I sign up, rather than being surprised with Delta/ United/ American Airlines/ etc.
posted by raccoon409 at 6:17 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know what I'm doing wrong, but Southwest is usually more expensive than the others. That said, no fee for checked luggage AND no fee if you need to change or cancel your ticket. Also I like the boarding procedure a lot more now that you get a place in line instead of just a group number. That said, it seems like every other flight is significantly late. I still try to book with them or Airtran (also owned by SW now), with whom I've never had any problems (but they charge all the fees the other airlines charge these days).
posted by dirigibleman at 6:18 PM on June 12, 2012


Southwest is great. Much better than American, Delta, or Continental. I've flown all plenty for business, and now if Southwest doesn't fly there I fly to the closest city they do and drive. Within reason, of course.
posted by BeeDo at 6:24 PM on June 12, 2012


That used to be true, but recent changes to the other airlines' practices seem to have changed that. Southwest doesn't seem to have changed at all, but everyone else seems to have lowered their standards to well below Southwest's.

They used to be cheap and kind of funky, sort of the Green Tortoise* of flying. Now, compared to the race to the bottom of the major carriers, Southwest seems like a bastion of hope and good service.

* I don't know if they still exist, but Green Tortoise was a hippyish bus company that ran up and down the west coast. You sort of lounged around on cushions and benches, rather than sitting in regular seats; instead of all the just-released convicts on Greyhound, it was more conversations with people on their way to the next Phish show or some lost European heading north and thinking they were on their way to San Fancisco. Hey, looks like they are still in business, and still promoting the "unique social dynamic that is created on every Green Tortoise trip"! For some reason, this makes me very happy.
posted by Forktine at 6:35 PM on June 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


Here I was thinking Southwest was anti-union, but Wikipedia says their employees are "heavily unionized." I can stop feeling guilty about loving Southwest!
posted by Xalf at 6:39 PM on June 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Green Tortoise is SOOO much more than just a bus company that runs up and down the west coast, too. Anyone with time to spend and who wants a unique adventure with like-minded strangers should definitely check them out.
posted by hippybear at 6:40 PM on June 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


To the complainers: Trains still have plenty of leg room, aisle space and basically zero security hassle. And for short distances (in the hundreds of miles range), they are the same overall speed (or faster) after you factor in all the time you need to allow for groping, parking, sitting on the tarmac, etc.
posted by DU at 6:54 PM on June 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Heh. Green Tortoise.

They used to do a route up Interstate 395 -- maybe they still do? -- and one of their regular stops/waypoints was the travertine hot springs outside of Bridgeport, CA.

For the local kids/kids in town for a summer job, the arrival of the Green Tortoise bus up at the hot springs was like the circus coming to town.
posted by notyou at 6:58 PM on June 12, 2012


To the complainers: Trains still have plenty of leg room, aisle space and basically zero security hassle. And for short distances (in the hundreds of miles range), they are the same overall speed (or faster) after you factor in all the time you need to allow for groping, parking, sitting on the tarmac, etc.

I make enough trips between L.A. and the Bay Area for work that I would love a realistic train option. Unfortunately, I don't think there really is one.
posted by The World Famous at 7:00 PM on June 12, 2012


To the complainers: Trains...

... in most of the US which isn't the Amtrak Corridor are very unreliable and rarely on schedule, hardly go anywhere at all compared to airplanes, and while they're a great idea, they simply are not useful for most travel outside of very limited service areas.

(Frankly, if there's one giant public works project I would love to throw my tax dollars behind, it would be building a real dedicated passenger rail service that works for the entire country, rather than the piecemeal service and freight-shared rail system we currently have. We could transform quite a bit of how the US interacts with itself if we had decent passenger rail service. But we don't, sadly.)
posted by hippybear at 7:01 PM on June 12, 2012 [22 favorites]


Green Tortoise is SOOO much more than just a bus company that runs up and down the west coast, too. Anyone with time to spend and who wants a unique adventure with like-minded strangers should definitely check them out.

No kidding. I used to use them for cheap and low-stress travel, but hadn't thought about those buses in years. Now I'm clicking my way through their website and thinking that it looks like a fabulous way to use up some vacation time.
posted by Forktine at 7:02 PM on June 12, 2012


Assuming, DU, trains are an option for your route.

disillusioned, above, who makes regular trips between Phoenix, AZ and Los Angeles, CA -- probably the outer edge of the time/distance equivalence -- would be SOL. AMTRAK doesn't run any passenger trains between Phoenix and Los Angeles.
posted by notyou at 7:03 PM on June 12, 2012


Trains, hah!. If I wanted to take the train to see my sister in Western MA, it would take me 14 to 16 hours and that would only get me to Hartford so it's another hour drive from the train. The direct flight takes one hour. It does cost twice as much but then I don't burn two whole days of vacation time sitting in a train. Even the train to NYC takes 10 to 12 hours. I can drive that in a little over half that time.
posted by octothorpe at 7:09 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe comparing apples with oranges, but there's a similar thing going on in Australia with "traditional" versus "budget" carriers.

Qantas, the prestigious "national airline" is expensive, provide dreadful service, have cramped planes, and have screwed me over in multiple ways. Even when it's a work trip, I ask the travel agent to avoid them if possible.

Virgin, a "budget airline", provide excellent service, have more leg room, and generally provide a much more pleasant experience. You know what you're getting. If I want a sandwich, I can buy it myself on board for a reasonable price. On Qantas, I pay $100 extra for the privilege of flying an airline that provides me with a shitty meal "for free". Jetstar is similar, but has adopted Qantas's shitty customer service. Tiger would be good, if they could get their shit together and buy some more planes so a single cancellation doesn't put their schedule back by 3 days.

Virgin profits: Taking off.
Qantas profits: TERRAIN TERRAIN TERRAIN.
posted by Jimbob at 7:10 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


At this point, the only thing people can really bitch about is the lack of assigned seating, if that's a huge benefit to you.

Well, that and the oh-so-freaking-annoying "fun" announcements.

Look, I'm stuck in an overheated metal tube, on an uncomfortable seat, next to guy who thinks flip-flops and a big johnson t-shirt are the height of fashion.

There's no possible way your creatively quirky departure song can help. Seriously, just make with the peanuts and save your audition for community theater.
posted by madajb at 7:11 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Trains] hardly go anywhere at all compared to airplanes

True, but Southwest hardly goes anywhere at all compared to the bigger airlines. I'd be happy to try them out, but Delta, United, American, and Frontier all fly to Madison, and they don't. (And thanks to Gov. Walker, the train's not coming here either.)
posted by escabeche at 7:14 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ironically, Southwest has become a more premium airline than many of the "full cost" carriers.

Yep. I remember the time my husband and I were trying to go home from Las Vegas, with a connection through Phoenix, and Las Vegas and Phoenix were both only sporadically letting planes take off due to some sort of bogus weather thing. We spent close to three hours in line on the runway on another carrier's plane, only to have to go back into the terminal and wait for an entirely new plane and crew, 'cause our original one timed out. By the time we got to Phoenix, we had to wait 'til morning for a connecting flight home—and there was zero chance of getting our luggage. In the most disgusting, sweaty condition, we stayed the night with a friend in Phoenix. (I think we may have even suffered some further indignity once we arrived home—that might've been the trip it turned out that a handler ripped the outer pocket of my husband's suitcase, then dumped in the contents of a bottle of shampoo for good measure. I can't remember for sure, though.)

In any case, at the time we were originally trying to leave Las Vegas, a music journalist from our town was also trying to go home...and she made it on just about the only plane that flew out of there before the lockdown. Guess who she was flying.

With whatever priority runway mojo Southwest has, I'd easily pay more just to be able to make it home on time with our luggage intact.

To the complainers: Trains...

Let me tell you about the time my simple trip home from Kansas City to St. Louis ended up taking eight hours, about half of which were spent on a siding waiting for a freight train to go by... (For those unfamiliar with that route: It would've been four hours by car.) Boy was I glad I'd accepted my friend's mom's offer of a sandwich for the train home.
posted by limeonaire at 7:14 PM on June 12, 2012


And for short distances (in the hundreds of miles range), they are the same overall speed (or faster) after you factor in all the time you need to allow for groping, parking, sitting on the tarmac, etc.

Plenty of others have already chimed in on this, but let me say that for anything the distance of Cleveland to Chicago or greater (which is only 350 miles, so I wonder how many "hundreds" of miles you are talking about) this is completely, totally, laughably untrue. The train takes far, far longer, in general, and doesn't really put me any closer to my destination than the airport. It is also usually not at all price competitive.

Amtrak does have the most comfortable seats, though. I will give them that.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:19 PM on June 12, 2012


I am planning a trip to Florida, and just tried to book a train from Houston to Kissimmee. Houston to Longview by bus, then Chicago, then DC, and finally Kissimmee. It would take over 72 hours to get me less than a thousand miles. So, no thank you train.
posted by parliboy at 7:20 PM on June 12, 2012


I have flown SouthWest for a couple of years and I have no issues. They are my carrier of choice..also, $5 mini bottles of chardonnay.
posted by RedShrek at 7:36 PM on June 12, 2012


This is perfectly timed - I was just reading their 'Boarding School' page today because I have a flight soon with Southwest and as they're relatively new to the Northeast, it's my first time flying with them. The positive experiences here give me a lot of reassurance.

I should note that part of the reason I haven't flown in so long is because I'm in the Northeast - specifically, on the Northeast Corridor route between Boston-DC. I find trains SO convenient along that line. Outside of it, though, I've had miserable experiences - like the time the train went backwards for 2 hours in central PA. I recently took the train to Montreal from NYC which was fun but dear god the bathrooms near the end of a 12 hour train ride are a special kind of hell.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:00 PM on June 12, 2012


No mention of the fuel hedging? They're the only airline that trades in fuel options and futures. Their long-term average fuel costs stay pretty much the same but in the short term it fluctuates a lot this. That way, when fuel prices jump up, their costs go up much more gradually so they don't have to scramble to raise ticket prices.


I don't really have a big problem with bag fees I just think they framed it poorly. They should have just increased ticket prices and then offered a discount to anyone flying without bags.
posted by VTX at 8:04 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


"To the complainers: Trains still have plenty of leg room"

That'd be awesome if the passenger rail hadn't been ripped out of my town 30 years ago.

And I mean, look, I'm going to do the Chicago-to-Santa-Fe train route one of these days, and it's a freaking hassle by air: drive to Chicago, Chicago-to-DFW, DFW-to-ABQ, get a car in ABQ, drive to Santa Fe. Whereas by train it's drive to Chicago, ride train to Lamy, take designated bus to Santa Fe. But the airplane route is only around 12 hours, while the train is 24, and it costs about the same as the airplane tickets, and we have to rent a car on the far end either way.

I would 100% ride the train anyway, because ANYTHING is less hassle than flying, but dammit we need high speed. (Yes, the sweet spot is totally Chicago-to-St.-Louis-length, which is 5 hours by car, by train instead so you can work on the train and not have to go through airport security.) Also we need subsidies for rail equal to what the airlines get. (Or, better, to what the interstates get.) Why is Amtrak the only service expected to pay for itself? It's bullshit.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:12 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do I leave on time, every time? Yes.
Do I arrive on time, every time? Yes.
Do I pay less? Yes.
Do I have less poking around in my ass in their lines? Yes.
Do I have my baggage lost, ever, in 30 years? No.

This is why I fly Southwest.
posted by PapaLobo at 8:14 PM on June 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


While not disputing its contents, this article really did seem like a one-interview wonder with a friendly Southwest VP.

Rather than demurring that we don't know how the model works elsewhere because a Brazilian airline launched in 2008, the author might have looked north at one of Southwest's most successful clones, Canada's profitable WestJet, now the #2 airline in the country. (Canada's #3 airline, the still-young Porter, also flies one model of plane exclusively.)
posted by bicyclefish at 8:22 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


And for short distances (in the hundreds of miles range), they are the same overall speed (or faster) after you factor in all the time you need to allow for groping, parking, sitting on the tarmac, etc.

Nonsense. Once a week, I lock my front door in the Logan Square Neighborhood in Chicago at five minutes 'til 5AM, and I walk into my office in downtown St. Louis, MO around 0845, and if I took a cab rather than the train from the airports, I could probably leave here at 0515 and get to the office at 0830.

No train gets me door to door in 4 hours. Here's the whole schedule

0455 -- lock door
0505 -- at Logan Square on the Milwaukee..err...I mean Blue Line.
0530 -- at O'Hare on the L platform (Blue Line Rebuild FTW!)
0545 -- BP in hand and through security, off to the club for coffee
0555 -- boarding starts
0635 -- depart
0745 -- arrive gate at STL
0755 -- on Metrolink platform for train to Downtown STL
0835 -- at Convention Center Stop on Metrolink
0840 -- walking into my office.

By car, legally, it's 5 hours 38 minutes. By train? Sheesh, 6+ hours.

The funny thing is if I really worked, I could probably do this whole trip in 2:45. Since I have a seat assignment, I don't need to queue up at the gate for a decent seat, so I can show up for that 0635 flight at, oh, 0620 without any issues. 0625, the door might close. The main reason for aiming to arrive at the airport 60 minutes is in case there's issues with the train. Otherwise, I could leave here about 0530, grab a cab, and grab a cab in STL, and easily beat 3 hours.

See, one of the rules is if you don't miss a plane every so often, you are spending *far* too much of your life in airports.

As to me. I do not like WN as an airline. However, I know why they've done so well.

They take care of their employees. Unlike every other airline, they don't treat the unions as the enemy. They give their people a chance to grow, and they take care of them, and they're rewarded with a bunch of people who want to work hard and who love working there. I've talked to a bunch of them, and they're very happy. My company, when small, stumbled onto the same leadership principles, and I'll be honest, I'm not looking forward to the day I leave this job.

Happy people work harder, don't strike, don't demand more money to make up for the shitty treatment and don't demand bizarre work rules to make sure you're not screwing them. WN's position on labor -- find the best, do everything to keep them -- has given them some of the lowest labor costs in the industry, despite WN being the most unionized airline in the US.

The bit in the article about WN only flying one plane? Nonsense. They currently fly three. They fly 737-200 which are first generation 737s, 737-300s and -500s, the 737 Classics, which are the 2nd generation, and 737-700 and -800s, which are 737 Next Generations.

These are very different aircraft. Here's the cockpit of a 732, and the cockpit of a 738. Type certification on one doesn't not mean you can fly the other. The maintenance is vastly different. The only thing the same about the 200 and 700 series is the number of seats and the "737" logo.

And, as a kicker, they actually fly four. They own and fly 88 717-200s, which they got from AirTran, but they're working on selling those to Delta. 717s, despite the Boeing name, are actually McDonell-Douglas MD-95s, but Boeing bought MD before they were shipped, so they became 717s. Great aircraft, every airline that's owned them loved them, and wished they'd ordered more so that Boeing would have kept making them.

Personally, I'm very happy with AA -- I was leery when they bought out TWA, but they've taken care of me. As a frequent flyer airline, they are quite good, I get non-stops to almost anywhere, and between AA's pretty decent International Network and the OneWorld alliance, I can get just about anywhere on the planet.

WN's point-to-point-to-point network doesn't help me much -- I've better things to do than fly between airports to get anywhere. Indeed, the idea that they don't have hubs is sort of silly -- 238 departures out of MDW daily, 225 out of LAS, 195 out of BWI, 180 PHX, 175 DEN -- and because they shuttle so much, weather over those really knocks them for a loop.

The lack of assigned seats means I have to spend more time in airports. WN does not have any service to London. The livery is horrid. I'm very concerned about their maintenance, because of their hyper focus on turnaround time -- indeed, that focus directly led to both of the major accidents they've had. WN brags about the "no fees for bags" -- but when you actually buy a $58 one way fare, you find it costs about $75, because of all the taxes and fees that they never tell you about. And that whole singing and joking routine is very much in the "funny once" category, and really starts to grate after the tenth time you've heard it that month.

But I'm a frequent flyer. WN is built for the less frequent flyer, and really, if you think it saves you money, or more importantly, if it gets you a shorter flight, then do use them.

They are my carrier of choice..also, $5 mini bottles of chardonnay.

This is another difference between frequent flyers and not-frequent flyers. You pay for that? And, hmm, I think AA sells them at the same price, but I honestly haven't checked in a while.

No mention of the fuel hedging? They're the only airline that trades in fuel options and futures.

Not true. AA has hedged for years, and continues to do so. But WN did do it first, and they have done it very well -- they've only been forced to eat the options a few times. The trick, really, is that WN (and AA, and Alaska, Jet Blue, and so on...) have kept large cash positions on hand to make sure they could buy options when they looked cheap. UA and the others often had so much tied up that they couldn't.

But fuel hedging is bonus money. The real cost of flying is the people you need to fly with, and WN's utterly brilliant labor policies are the one reason they've been profitable.

Indeed, I could see myself quite happily working for WN. However, it's very likely I'd still be flying AA.

drive to Chicago, Chicago-to-DFW, DFW-to-ABQ

AA 3853 ORD-ABQ 0945-1135
AA 3762 ORD-ABQ 1240-1430
AA 3630 ORD-ABQ 1950-2140

All nonstop. They are, however, on lawn darts -- but they're Tundra Jets, which are actually pretty comfortable as lawn darts go. However, AA does fly DFW-SAF, so you could get ORD-DFW-SAF and avoid the drive from ABQ.

Haven't checked other airlines.
posted by eriko at 8:28 PM on June 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


I unabashedly recommend Southwest to friends and family, for all the reasons mentioned in this thread. But in addition, it needs to be emphasized that the staff at the airline at just realy nice! Four quick stories.

(disclaimer: I don't work for Southwest; I have never worked for Southwest; no family or friends do now or ever have worked for Southwest; just as a regular traveler I am grateful they're out there)

First I remember one Thanksgiving when we had to fly out of SFO at 6 AM, and when we got there a huge line had already formed in the terminal. But no one in the line was in a bad mood, and it seemed to all be percolating down from the staff. They were walking by the line and chatting with young kids, telling the parents that the wait to get to the desk wouldn't be too long, helping people with wheelchairs and walkers moved up faster, and just generally being attentive. And when we got to the front desk, they were still friendly, and it just set the mood for the rest of the hours of travel we had ahead of us. Compare that with the clusterfucks of anger and rudeness on the United desk, for instance ...

Second Weather can often get bumpy over the Rockies, and regular travelers get used to it. On one trip across the divide, though, the plane was getting bounced and shaked and shimmying way harder than usual and just glancing around the cabin you could see that a lot of the passengers were getting nervous. Apropos of nothing, one of the flight attendants came on the cabin and said "Ladies and gentlemen, it's going to be pretty bumpy for the next ten minutes or so, so let's make the best of a bad situation: put your hands in the air like it's a roller coaster and yell 'Wheee!'" A few folks did so. "No, really hands in the air and WHEEE!" and more people did it, then laughed and she congratulated us. It sounds silly and patronising, but it really let the tension out of the room. It got people chuckling, it showed that the staff were aware that people weren't comfortable, and it was exactly the sort of (good) decompression that airplanes need at a time like that.

Third SFO again. I got there way later than I anticipated, and it was clear that I was going to be lucky to make the gate in time. In the queue to the checkin counter the guy in front of me became belligerent and rude to the woman behind the counter. His behavior was grade-A asshole, and those of us behind him in line were looking at each other like "Holy shit, can you believe this guy!?"

Listening to him yell, it was clear he was also on the same flight as me. He was telling how important he was and how he had to make the flight so that he could get to his destination on time. She told him there was no way he would make it on the flight and that in fact the only available flight was much later in the day, take it or leave it. Good day, sir. I said good day.

I was up next in line and as I went to the counter I apologized for his rudeness and commiserated with her, and then said "I think I'm on the same flight he wanted on, so you should also sort me out one of those later flights, too."

She smiled at me, and said "Oh, no, you can definitely still make this flight. In fact ... yep, confirmed: you're on it!"

"But you said to him that there was no way ...?"

"Did you see how he was talking to me? When people are mean to us we don't really try to help them out. So, your flight boards pretty soon, you're going to need to hurry through security. But enjoy your trip!"

Fourth I was flying SFO to Denver on the cheapest Southwest ticket I could find, which meant I got routed through Las Vegas and (I think) Phoenix. At 8 AM on the SFO->Las Vegas leg, I ended up literally surrounded by a eight incredibly drunk guys who had decided at 2AM that they were going to Vegas, stayed up, stayed drunk, and WOOOO'd! their way to losing thousands. And little old me, trying to sit among them and read and not getting anything done.

I ended up just staying on the plane between legs, and after the drunks (and everyone else but me!) piled off the plane in Vegas and before the other passengers got on, I spoke to one of the flight attendants at the back and said "I dunno if I can do this, but can I buy a bloody mary while I'm waiting?" Well, turns out I couldn't, not before the plane had taken off.

But as soon as the plane hit 10K feet and the seatbelt sign was turned off, the steward came right up to my seat, deposited two (!) bloody marys and some tickets for more drinks. I went for my wallet and said "Thanks!" and he said "No, no, no, on the house: I saw where you were sitting and in my opinion, for being able to sit among those idiots and keep a good attitude, you earned these. Enjoy the flight!"


Really, good on Southwest. I don't know anything about management, but their staff are friendly and courteous, and in these days of air travel being an experience in pain, it's a relief to see smiling faces in some parts of the airport. And they're unionized! Win-win-win. Best airline in the US.
posted by barnacles at 8:30 PM on June 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


They're the only major airline to have zero passenger fatalities.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:35 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


"When people are mean to us we don't really try to help them out."

Wow, I just ... One thing I admire about gate agents is the amazing professionalism with which they handle jerks like that, without losing their cool or retaliating. (And this isn't something special to Southwest -- I've been wowed by the staff of all the airlines I regularly fly, United, AA, Delta, and Frontier.)

I actually don't want the gate agent to decide who gets to get on the plane based on who they like best. Yeah, that might be me one day, but it might not be me another day.
posted by escabeche at 8:46 PM on June 12, 2012


I flew Southwest for the first time a couple years ago coming back from Chicago to Houston. I live in Houston, but I normally fly out of IAH because it's close to my parent's house so I can leave my car there (and for years my dad worked at IAH so I had free parking and shuttle service there which was even easier.) So I've done Delta, American, United, etc.

I was pretty impressed with Southwest. Which flies (or flew, I think they're working on a terminal at IAH now) into an airport an hour away.

Bascially, I just want to go up and come down in a plane that's in the same condition I went up in. I've flown full-on-perks first class and it's nice and all when someone else is paying for it.

The flight attendants were actually jokey and funny. The head attendant was trying to hook up people on the plane with Southwest employees who were doing their free flying thing and were on the plane, and after delivering her boilerplate spiel once we parked at the gate said, "Now get off the plane." All in good fun.

I might have just caught a good crew but it all made a pretty big difference in the mood on the plane.
posted by Cyrano at 9:10 PM on June 12, 2012


How Southwest Airlines turns a profit 39 years in a row

They did it by making the rows a lot closer together. So it's more like 31 years.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:24 PM on June 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I really want to like Southwest, but they're consistently more expensive than the competition (which could have something to do with my location), and I usually can't justify the price when I can also choose AirTran, JetBlue, or even Virgin America (who unquestionably have the most absolutely fantastic domestic flying experience in the business).

Similarly, the point-to-point thing is irritating if you don't happen to be flying between those two points. Multiple legs get expensive in Southwest's pricing scheme. Ironically, AirTran (a hub/spoke airline) used to have more convenient point-to-point routes than SW does. They also operated very cheap and very sensible short-haul flights -- no frills, but it also didn't feel 'cheap.' Basically, they were a Southwest that was actually cheaper, and lacked the annoying quirks.

I'm going to be sad to see AirTran gobbled up by SW, especially since it looks like Southwest is going to disassemble a large chunk of AirTrain's old route network on the east coast. SW recently killed AirTran's old LGA-PHF route, which was consistently full every time I flew on it, and now leaves an entire geographic area unserved by a major carrier.
posted by schmod at 9:29 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


eriko: "Great aircraft, every airline that's owned them loved them"

To be fair, only 2 US carriers actually own them, and it's completely unsurprising that Southwest are trying to get rid of them. Yeah, they're nice planes, but it's an operational nightmare to be the only ones flying and maintaining a specific type of plane, especially when it has virtually nothing in common with any other plane currently in service.

It's a shame too, because the 717 really is a nice plane, but that just wasn't enough to stop the 737 juggernaut.
posted by schmod at 9:33 PM on June 12, 2012


If you're married and want to both sit with your partner and also want to have a window seat for yourself; is this something you can guarantee on a Southwest flight? If so, how?
posted by Bonky Moon at 9:43 PM on June 12, 2012


I actually don't want the gate agent to decide who gets to get on the plane based on who they like best.

Gate agents can make or break your day - they can turn a bad traveling experience into a good one, or a worse one. I've seen people go off on them (no, the gate agent isn't responsible for the weather that has closed New York), and never understood what people hoped to accomplished.

If you're married and want to both sit with your partner and also want to have a window seat for yourself; is this something you can guarantee on a Southwest flight? If so, how?

Pay for the early check-in, check in as early as possible, get in the front of the line.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:49 PM on June 12, 2012


If you're married and want to both sit with your partner and also want to have a window seat for yourself; is this something you can guarantee on a Southwest flight? If so, how?

Show up early enough to the gate to be in one of the first two boarding groups. This will guarantee that you will have a window seat, and with your spouse in line next to you, s/he will get the seat next to you.
posted by hippybear at 9:49 PM on June 12, 2012


I'm going to be sad to see AirTran gobbled up by SW, especially since it looks like Southwest is going to disassemble a large chunk of AirTrain's old route network on the east coast. SW recently killed AirTran's old LGA-PHF route, which was consistently full every time I flew on it, and now leaves an entire geographic area unserved by a major carrier.

Really? Entire geographic area unserved? That's a bit melodramatic considering it's 25 miles from downtown Newport News to Norfolk International.
posted by Talez at 10:12 PM on June 12, 2012


OK, so, over the past few years I've gone from someone who didn't fly all that often -- maybe once or twice a year -- to someone who does it once or twice a month, and sometimes more. I have seen a lot of airports and a lot of airlines, and I have learned things.

I have learned that Southwest is the Chipotle of airlines. Not the best or the cheapest, but good enough for most people and with some quirky branding thrown in that gets people excited when they finally come to a city. Serious flyers will make fun of you for flying Southwest, but ignore them; if you don't fly much, or if you do but mostly regionally in an area where they have heavy presence, you can do a whole lot worse. The big advantage is that they have the consistency of a slightly-premium fast-food brand: you know what you're going to get and you know what it's going to cost.

Meanwhile, if you are in a position where you know you will be flying more often, and need to pick an airline, I have some advice for you.

First, do not pick an airline based on price. Ever. In the long run the fares will mostly average out. Do consider hubs. Not all airports are equally bad or equally good; try a couple airlines and pay attention to what's happening to you in your connecting airports, because when your plans break down those are the places you'll be in. For example, on the east coast I have a strong fondness for Charlotte, which is one reason why I ended up with US Airways. Avoid the "big three" -- Atlanta, O'Hare and SFO -- like the plague.

Once you settle on an airline, join the frequent-flyer program. Just do it; it's free. Do not sign up for the credit card, no matter how many times the flight attendants ask you to. Separate check-in lane? Awesome. Separate security lane at major airports? Oh dear lord, yes.

If you are planning travel well in advance, search for first-class flights. No, really. Domestic first, about two months out, is often the same price as economy booked a few weeks later. It's worth it.

Learn how airports work. Not just the obvious stuff like being ready with everything at the check-in counter or taking your laptop out before you get to the bins. Pay attention to patterns at different times of day and plan your flights around them. If you're frequently going in/out of a multi-airport metro area, odds are very good that peak time for one is off-peak for another. Take advantage of this.

And if you do end up flying on Southwest, pay the extra twenty bucks or whatever it is now for the premium ticket. Free drinks plus guaranteed group A is pretty good. Ditto for Frontier; hot cookie, more legroom and bundled in-flight TV is nice.
posted by ubernostrum at 10:17 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mostly fly out of Oakland, and I pick Southwest whenever I possibly can. That twenty dollar premium ticket gets you into the short line at an already-fast security checkpoint staffed by the world’s nicest TSA agents and the actual flight is always a breeze.

Most people I know like Virgin America, but I don’t really understand the appeal.
posted by migurski at 10:22 PM on June 12, 2012


eriko: These are very different aircraft. Here's the cockpit of a 732, and the cockpit of a 738.

Southwest has done a lot to reduce the differences, at least as far as flying them goes. They ordered all of their 737-300/500s with steam gauges, so they look just like the 727-200s. And on the Next Generations, they have the displays set up to have a steam gauge-like layout.
posted by zsazsa at 10:55 PM on June 12, 2012


eriko, i'm sure you have written something interesting, but I had trouble reading it because you kept writing 'WN'. What the heck is WN? I've never heard of an airline with those initials. Why are you changing the subject?

Of course I had to look it up, and found this.
posted by eye of newt at 10:58 PM on June 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Southwest is a classic case study taught in business school.

They're apparently very focused on being a bus in the sky: Regular services, so it doesn't much matter which one you get on. No assigned seating, like a bus, so they fill the planes up more (higher yield) and the expensive planes are in the air a lot earning money instead of sitting at a gate getting cleaned. You turn up, and they get you to where you want to go. Simple, no fuss.

Everything they do is geared around that.

Oh, and they explicitly put their staff first, customers second, and shareholders third/last. They get *thousands* of employment applications a year. People fall over themselves to work there.

They're not perfect, but AFAIK, they're the only airline (certainly in North America) to make money every year for 39 years.

And people love them. They're doing a lot of things right.
posted by But tomorrow is another day... at 11:03 PM on June 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Really? Entire geographic area unserved? That's a bit melodramatic considering it's 25 miles from downtown Newport News to Norfolk International.

Hahahahaha... clearly you've never missed a flight after some asshole decided to crash in the tunnel.
posted by indubitable at 5:03 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


What the heck is WN?

As with the intricately timed itineraries, intimate familiarity with plane models, and bragging about the free booze, referring to your airline and all destinations by code rather than by their human name is a good way for frequent fliers to separate themselves from the hoi polloi.
posted by ook at 5:15 AM on June 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


I've flown on Southwest a few times and other than the line up at the gate thing, I've never noticed much difference between them and Continental, USAir, etc.
posted by octothorpe at 5:22 AM on June 13, 2012


Train travel on the Boston-NYC-WashingtonDC route is pretty sweet, and often better than flying. Everywhere else I've tried is pretty dire. I've never had a domestic flight drop me in my destination city twelve hours late on a routine run. (No track trouble, no weather trouble, no engine trouble, just late. Train showed up in San Francisco three hours late and lost the other nine between there and Portland.)

the man of twists and turns: "Gate agents can make or break your day - they can turn a bad traveling experience into a good one, or a worse one. I've seen people go off on them (no, the gate agent isn't responsible for the weather that has closed New York), and never understood what people hoped to accomplished."

I've never understood why people decide to aggravate the only person who can help them. For one thing, the person you're talking to is almost never directly responsible for the problem. For another, aggravated people have less attention to spare for your problem and way less motivation to work very hard on it. I've never been a gate agent, but I've done similar customer facing work, and I've found myself holding fast to "policy" in the face of blowhards (never actually sabotaging, but...). Workarounds, exceptions, and discretionary upgrades are for people who know how to be baseline civil.

I've had great luck, myself, with "Here's my problem. What do you need from me to make it easier for you to fix it?" (as opposed to, say, "You stupid [expletive], why isn't my problem fixed already?")
posted by Karmakaze at 7:29 AM on June 13, 2012


My wife used to work for AC at YVR (sorry, eye of newt, couldn't resist), and the stories of irate "don't you know who I am?" jerks are legion. The gorund agents aren't typically responsible for the plane being cancelled/delayed, so why bother being hostile to them when they are just doing their job?

If you're polite and respectful, you'll get served quickler and more likely get better results. I used to know a manager at my old company who boasted that he got better results by shouting at check-in agents; it didn't work for his employees, and I'll bet that it didn't work for his airline experience in the long run.
posted by arcticseal at 8:06 AM on June 13, 2012


About ten years ago, I temped at Southwest's hq in Dallas. The work was drudgery, but the people were all super-nice. They worked hard, but they also enjoyed being there. Fridays there were always parties on the building roof, with free booze served by flight attendants, lots of contests, etc.

They also push the "everybody on the team is as important as everybody else" angle. To prove this, one day there was a parade through the halls. A bunch of grown men wearing baby bonnets and pacifiers were riding tricycles. I asked what it was about. Turns out that SW hazes new pilots by making them do that. The reasoning is that pilots - most fresh out of the military - naturally think they're bad-asses. Since SW doesn't want to foster the idea that the pilots are some elite group amongst the employees, they try to knock them down a couple of pegs. They only hire pilots who are willing to do that sort of thing. As a result, everybody wins. It was weird, but kind of neat.

I also heard a story a member of HR was telling to new employees, about one of the very few times that SW had an accident. Long story short, the front landing gear wouldn't come down, so the pilot and flight crew did their job and got everybody safe on the tarmac. But the point of the story was that the pilot refused to be interviewed by the press afterward, because he was just doing his job, just as the flight crew did their job, so there was no need to single out the pilot as special. Contrast this with other situations where pilots end up lauded as heroes, and it made that whole SW attitude of teamwork stand out.

I don't know if I entirely agree with that attitude: if you ask me, the pilot's role in that landing was considerably more important than the flight crew's, but it did make an impression.
posted by nushustu at 8:40 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


the man of twists and turns: "Gate agents can make or break your day - they can turn a bad traveling experience into a good one, or a worse one."

Oh, this totally.

The Virgin America gate crew at Dulles are just ridiculously nice.

A few months ago at BWI, after my flight was delayed, an AirTran gate agent got me onto a different flight to Boston, moments before they closed the door...basically just because I asked nicely. They were far enough along in their boarding process that they could have totally just told me to STFU, and stay on my original flight.

On the same night, I also got to see them expertly handle a long-distance flight that had been cancelled due to an equipment problem. A group of attendants and gate agents (who had clearly just rolled out of bed to handle the crisis) did a surprisingly good job of handling the mob of angry customers, and managed to get an extra plane and crew flown in to handle the mass of stranded passengers, all the while communicating their progress to the stranded passengers. I was really impressed by this, and don't think that a major "non-discount" carrier would have been as prompt or courteous.

The one thing I will never understand about modern airlines, is their insistence on nickle-and-diming customers who want to switch to an earlier flight that has room on it. This costs the airlines nothing, and frees up seats down the road that can either be sold, or potentially used as overflow from flights that were overbooked, delayed, or rerouted. However, instead, they seem dead set on preventing the non-elites from improving their efficiency in this way.

(And, really, the egregious examples of frequent flier entitlement need to end. Southwest has the right idea. Give the frequent flyers some perks for their brand loyalty, but don't do it at the expense of basic amenities for everyone else...)
posted by schmod at 10:02 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


indubitable: "Hahahahaha... clearly you've never missed a flight after some asshole decided to crash in the tunnel."

No, seriously. The traffic through that tunnel is bad enough that I imagine many Newport News residents (and others further up the peninsula) will now opt to take the train, or drive to Richmond instead of going to Norfolk.

(Oh, and I might as well dig here about how abjectly horrible the Amtrak service to Hampton Roads is. I love Amtrak, but the limited service, poorly timed departures, high ticket prices, and terrible on-time performance make it a bad choice for people living in that area. Sometimes, you can bike to Richmond more quickly than the train)
posted by schmod at 10:05 AM on June 13, 2012


The last couple of times I've flown Southwest, they've brought a big box of snacks by and said, "Take as many as you want." I like them for many other reasons, but they won my heart with those simple gestures.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:31 PM on June 13, 2012


I LOVE SOUTHWEST.

To those complaining that they're cheap or silly, all those equations go out the window the minute you need to call customer service. Try it. You'll get a real live human being on the phone within less than a minute, and they'll go out of their way to help you solve your problem.

I once had a flight to Hawaii booked through them on a third party airline. That airline went bankrupt the day before my trip. The southwest representative spent over an HOUR going over the different flights with us, trying to get us into Hawaii as soon as possible.

I've never found a company with customer service like they have, in any industry. There are times I don't fly them--if there's no direct flight, or if they're substantially more expensive--but they're my default go to, and I'll gladly spend 20 bucks to fly with them instead.

Serious flyers will make fun of you for flying Southwest

I used to be a fairly serious flyer, flying about once or twice a month on average. Southwest has a cancellation policy where you can get full credit for what you spent on your ticket up to an hour before the flight. That's pretty huge when you're doing a lot of flying and need to keep things flexible.

I swear, I don't work for Southwest. I just flew them a lot and really love them.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 10:30 AM on June 15, 2012


For the last 15 years or so, I've been a pretty heavy business traveler. I live in Houston, which is a very easy place to fly, partly because we're in the middle of the country (at least longitudinally) and partly because we've traditionally been served very well by two very highly rated carriers: Southwest, and the pre-merger Continental.

Since the merger, and even since a little before, I've been flying Southwest more on purpose. There are lots of reasons, but the biggest one pre-merger was the fact that flying CO usually meant flying a subcontractor airline and a tiny jet under CO livery, whereas Southwest was always a nice, comfy 737. That's a giant difference.

Even before the "regional jet" switchover, though, a 737 set up for SWA was more comfortable than a CO 737, assuming I didn't get an upgrade. (And since I'm only a "Silver" flier and not a top-tier elite member, upgrades were rare anyway.)

My conclusion is, basically, fly SWA if it's an option. You'll be generally happier than you would be if you flew any other domestic carrier.

(Also, this thing people say about SWA not being a frequent-flier airline? Utter poppycock.)

And trains? How cute. I doubt they're a real option outside of the northeast and maybe California. Taking a train from Houston to anywhere typically costs as much or even more than flying, and takes longer than driving. I'd love it if this weren't true, but right now it is.
posted by uberchet at 2:28 PM on June 19, 2012


And trains? How cute. I doubt they're a real option outside of the northeast and maybe California.

The train is a real option between San Diego and L.A., but not from Southern California to Northern California. For example, when I go to the Amtrak website and plug in a trip from Union Station in L.A. to San Francisco, it tells me that the first leg of my trip is a two-hour bus ride to Bakersfield, followed by a six-hour train from Bakersfield to Emeryville, and then a half hour bus ride to SF.
posted by The World Famous at 2:38 PM on June 19, 2012


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