Written by Southwest Customer Kim Seale
Two recent newspaper articles, combined with Southwest's newest ad campaign (to view "Coins" commercial, click here and open first ad), have caused me to reflect on the changing environment of air travel. It seems to me that "the Southwest effect" is much more than just the downward influence on airfares when SWA begins service to a new city. That is because I believe that Southwest Airlines, as a company, is about more than just low fares. Sure, that is a big and very obvious part of what they bring to the market, but I see a larger, but slightly less visible aspect of what SWA has meant to the airline industry. In my opinion, just maybe Customer Satisfaction is the true "Southwest Effect."
The first article that caught my eye was one that was titled 'Fliers' gripes soar', and it talked about the increasing number of complaints being lodged against air carriers. The author references "record-high airline traffic" (load factors) and its pressure on "flight delays, cancellations, rude airline employees, overheated airplane cabins, lost baggage and hours of frustration at the airport," which is more than just a mouthful of issues. These things come together to indicate a severe degradation in the level of customer service being offered to the flying public by many of the airlines in business today. The fuller the planes are, the less concerned some companies seem to be about trying to please the very people who are buying those tickets. Although I am reluctant to name names, it appears that some of the AAmerican-based airlines that are Continental in their approach look as if they are United in their efforts to take passengers in their Jets of Blue, or other colors, through the US airways, from the Northwest part of our country, to the Midwest part of our country, across the Delta of the Mississippi and to all other Frontiers of the United States with less and less concern for those passengers' satisfaction.
However, this article went on to say that the airline with the lowest rate of complaints wasÃ¢â‚¬¦Southwest Airlines. Are you surprised? You shouldn't be, and it is because of Positively Outrageous Service. Is Southwest perfect? Are they always on time? Do they always perfectly deliver a piece of luggage to its waiting owner in baggage claim? Of course, the answer to all of these is "No!" But, the difference is that when human mistakes occur, they are happening in the context of customers that already feel appreciated and pleased with the treatment they've gotten. I've been on flights that departed late from their gate, and yet the flight attendants had people onboard laughing at stupid jokes and singing along with ridiculous songs.
The second article talked about the aviation collection at the University of Texas at Dallas that is primarily the remnants of Braniff's public affairs archive. In that story, the curator of the collection along with a retired Braniff employee are interviewed as they reminisce about the bygone days of style, service and steaks in first class meals. The article ends with the quote, "I can just imagine back in the 1960s and an airline said they were going to charge you for a meal – passengers would have flipped out."
That leads me back full circle to the new SWA television ads that feature a passenger having to feed quarters into a receptacle to access the overhead bins or seatback trays. So many airlines these days appear eager to "nickel-and-dime" their passengers to supplement ailing bottom lines. Upcharges for a snack, a fee to get headphones to listen to a movie and charging you to make a change to a ticket all add up to a lack of sensitivity to their passengers. One particular AAirline recently informed us that to change an existing "free" (earned through mileage accrual) award ticket reservation booked in one passenger's name to another, without changing the flight numbers or dates, we would have to pay $100! That seat was already saved in our name, but trying to 'give' the same exact seat to someone else when we were unable to use it was going to cost us $100, on a ticket that could be purchased for about $200. A 50% premium for someone else to use that "free"seat!
At Southwest, however, the atmosphere is one of providing service and pleasing the customer while having a great time doing it. Other than a charge for alcoholic beverages, there are no additional fees to enjoy your flight experience on a SWA jet. They consistently rate at the top of many passenger satisfaction polls, provide some of the best ontime performance of the industry and manage to keep making a profit while they're doing it. The 'other' guys irritate their passengers, frustrate their employees, appear to run late pretty regularly and just keep losing money. Their solution? Nickel-and-dime the folks who fly with them! Let's see, a strategy built around continuing to alienate the people who are keeping you in business. What's wrong with this picture?
It just seems like the attitude displayed by a number of air carriers is that they are doing US a favor by letting us ride on THEIR planes. Is it just me, or has the cart gotten in front of the horse (proverbially speaking) somewhere along the way?
(Kim has been flying with Southwest since the early 70s both for pleasure and his business duties.)