I frequently find myself explaining why Southwest is my favorite airline for personal and business travel. I get this question so often that last year I decided to create a list in my favorite note-taking app to help organize my thoughts. As a self-anointed brand ambassador, frequent flyer, and card-carrying A-Lister, I take this opportunity to educate curious travelers (and future Southwest loyalists) very seriously. Last week, I again had this question pop up and, upon opening my note, I realized I had more than enough content for a full-length AirlineReporter piece. So, without further ado, here are my top nine reasons why Southwest is the best domestic airline.
#1: Why Southwest? The culture.
This company gets it. They pick only the best people and invest heavily in them. Purpose, vision, mission, and values at most companies are words and concepts typically cobbled together by an outside entity. The result is that all but the most dedicated employees don’t pay attention to them. And why would they? At any typical employer, these tenants of culture are not only dictated, but they change with each regime update.
Southwest is different. They not only put thought into their culture, but their employees live it, and quite literally LUV it. The next time you are on a Southwest flight, ask the cabin crew to recite the vision, purpose, or values. You’ll not only be surprised that they can, but that they take it seriously. Fun-LUVing attitude anyone? I can’t tell you how often I catch Southwest folks having a good time while simultaneously entertaining and engaging flyers.
Southwest is known around the world for their culture. Or, as Southwest President Emeritus Colleen Barrett calls it, their “secret sauce.” The company is so famous for their culture, in fact, that a quick search of Amazon’s book category for “Southwest Airlines” yields literally thousands of results. Amazingly enough, my favorite book about Southwest, Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success by management sage Ken Blanchard and Colleen Barrett doesn’t even make the front page.
Another thing special about Southwest’s culture? They give coupons known as “Kick Tails” to their frequent flyers. The coupons aren’t necessarily for the customers. Instead, they are for the customers to act on behalf of the company in helping to reward employees by “catching them doing something right.” What are “Kick Tails” good for? I’m told employees can redeem the codes on the back for raffles and prizes. Pretty cool!
Note for Southwest management: I’m fresh out of “Kick Tales,” send me a refill, please? You know they will be put to good use!
#2: The fleet
Southwest Airlines operates the world’s largest fleet of Boeing 737s. As of December 31, 2015, the airline had over 700 737s in active service, with many more new and used planes in the pipeline. Southwest has been the launch partner for many of the 737 variants, including the brand-new 737 MAX. The majority of the fleet is comprised of “next generation” -700 and -800s. Around 130 -300 and -500 “classic” variants still remain in the fleet, but they are very quickly being retired. At my last count, the airline had less than 10 -500s left, and I’m told they’ll be gone in just over two months, with all -300s retired by the close of 2017. Fly them while you can!
Why is the fleet a selling point for prospective customers? Consistency. Have you ever intentionally avoided booking a flight serviced by one or more plane types? I have. But this is not a concern with Southwest. Even though the airline operates four distinct variants, there is very little difference in passenger experience between them. The interiors are the same across all but a few outliers (under two dozen) which still sport the pre-evolve interior. Every -700 and -800 comes equipped with Row 44 (Global Eagle) bring your own device entertainment, as well as on-board in-flight connectivity.
From a plane-spotter perspective, Southwest has one of the most exciting fleets in the North American skies, thanks to ten state heritage planes, three planes sporting the original Desert Gold livery, and many others sporting unique paint or decals. Also of note, the Southwest fleet is currently being transitioned from the Canyon Blue livery to the newer Southwest Heart paint. It’s an exciting time to be a spotter.
I have flown Southwest Airlines regularly for over a decade. Not once has the airline canceled a flight on me for a reason other than weather, and even that has only happened once. Additionally, I have never had a mishandled or damaged bag. Never.
Delays happen with Southwest, just like every other airline, but they are never what I would consider extreme. I would guess around 15% of my flights experience a delay of 30 minutes or less, nothing to write home about. Upon checking the BTS data for the most recent month of data available, I see their on-time performance is right around 85%, assurance that my estimation is in line with reality. I cannot recall a time that I was delayed over an hour.
#4: Surprises and delights
I never ask for special treatment. I don’t deserve it. Nonetheless, a few times a year the people of Southwest offer unexpected surprises and delights. Typically it isn’t “the company” per-say, but the people, acting on behalf of the company. This is what’s refreshing about the airline. They give their employees leeway to surprise customers and brighten their day. I’ll offer four examples to drive the point home:
i: Not long ago, a ramper from New York, whom I have never met in person, reached out on social media and offered two 20% off discount codes “for being a loyal customer.” It turns out these codes are occasionally given to employees as job perk. This employee had no need for the codes and decided to pass them along. How cool (and selfless) is that?
ii: Last year, I found myself on an American Airlines flight and ordered a coffee. It was terrible so I tweeted @SouthwestAir telling them how much better their coffee was. A week later, a case of Southwest’s proprietary LIFT coffee arrived on my doorstep.
iii: My kiddo’s (4th) birthday: I follow and interact with a lot of Southwest employees on Instagram. Typically all I post there is photos of planes, but occasionally some personal stuff gets posted too. For his 4th birthday, my son asked for dinner at the airport. As an AvGeek dad I thought was pretty cool, so it resulted in an Instagram post. A week later a package came from Southwest addressed not to me, but to my kiddo. Inside was a card signed by dozens of Southwest employees, a shirt, and a package of drink cups. Drink cups? Interestingly enough, weeks prior I posted about how my kiddo has a thing for the drink cups and demands I bring them home. Some smart WN’er caught on and totally made my kid’s day.
iv: My kiddo’s 5th birthday: A local Southwest employee caught wind that my son had recently turned five and invited us out for a ramp tour on a quiet Saturday evening. I don’t know who was more excited for the tour, me or the kid. In any case, this was a major milestone for my son and something that he still talks about to this day. I later learned, it turns out the Southwest Airlines team here in KC has a history of making birthdays for young fans extra special.
I am not special, and my experiences are not unique; I’ve had these kinds of experiences way before my involvement with AirlineReporter. Surprises and delights like this happen every day thanks to the people of Southwest. Don’t believe me? Thumb through the Southwest magazine on your next flight to find many examples of WN’ers (my nickname for Southwest employees) going above and beyond for their customers. Or simply ask around or check social media. Chances are you can easily find stories from friends and family about how a Southwest flight attendant returned a lost library book, or a pilot who helped a mom by carrying her child through the airport. It’s good business, and it creates and sustains loyalty and admiration while also earning some positive PR. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Southwest gets it.
#5: No Fees
Fees, they are nasty, right? Ok, I’m actually okay with some fees, so long as I know what to expect. One fee I really hate? Change fees. Stuff happens, and sometimes plans change. Why penalize me when you can sell my seat to someone else for a higher price? I digress. Thankfully, Southwest is the airline where #FeesDontFly. Better yet, Southwest is the only domestic airline to offer up to two free checked bags. Meanwhile, some of the other guys are charging more for a carry-on than the actual fare. I’m looking at you, Spirit and Frontier.
#6: Freedom to move about the cabin
Southwest doesn’t have seat assignments. Understandably, this worries some people. But for me, it’s liberating. Have you ever gotten to your assigned seat and wished you could pick another instead? I have. Just recently I chose what I thought would be the perfect seat only to have the row in front of me claimed by a group of young, loud, energetic soccer kids. With any other airline I’d be stuck, but thanks to Southwest’s open seating policy I was able to quickly claim a seat a few rows back and enjoy some peace and quiet.
And for you single flyers out there… there are many stories of LUV connections sparked at 30k feet. In fact, the airline gets a few letters each year from newly minted couples who met thanks to the open seating policy. Think you’ve spotted your soulmate? Grab the seat next to them and give it a shot. What do you have to lose?
#7: Award-winning rewards program
Southwest has the best rewards program, and I’m not alone in thinking so. In fact, Rapid Rewards recently won “Airline Program of the Year” at the 26th annual Freddie awards. So, how good is the program? Consider this: Each revenue dollar spent on the cheapest fare class (“Wanna Get Away”) earns six rapid rewards points. On the other side, to redeem at the lowest fare class, 70 points equal one dollar. Said another way, each Rapid Rewards point is worth 1.43 cents when redeemed at the lowest fare class. Earnings potential increases with fare class — 10 points per revenue dollar for “Anytime” fares, and 12 points per dollar for “Business Select” fares. With no blackout dates and points that don’t expire, it’s crazy easy to earn free flights.
For the most loyal customers (100 one-way flights or 110,000 TQPs) Southwest even offers a companion pass. Designate a friend and any time you fly, they fly for the price of taxes only. Unlimited companion flights, even when you fly on points or internationally. It’s the best deal in the airline industry. I had a companion pass a few years ago and let me tell you, it was amazing.
Southwest is the dominant carrier at most domestic airports and, until recently, was the world’s largest carrier (by passengers). Delta, which has a large international presence, recently claimed that title. In any case, combine Southwest’s ubiquity with their decentralized route network, and chances are Southwest can get most flyers from point A to point B quicker than most of the other guys, most of the time. Southwest is the dominant carrier here in the Kansas City metro area, offering non-stop flights to 29 of the 43 cities our airport has service to. Put simply, Southwest is best positioned to connect me what’s important in my life, whether it’s business or pleasure.
#9: Shareholder return
The first few years for Southwest were tough. But once they posted a profit they never looked back. Since that first quarterly profit, the airline has never once had a quarterly loss. While other airlines failed, merged, and declared bankruptcy (some more than once) Southwest remained profitable. I can think of no better way to illustrate this than to quote from Leading with Luv by Colleen Barrett and Ken Blanchard: “In a business so fraught with economic peril that the entire domestic airline industry has compiled a net loss since its inception, Southwest’s People have produced an unprecedented and unparalleled record of job security, Customer satisfaction, and Shareholder return.”
And this success is not limited to just the shareholders and executives. Southwest constantly rewards its employees with profit sharing. In fact, as the New York Times reported in 2006, on some flights, millionaires serve the drinks.
Conclusion: Why Southwest?
I don’t always fly Southwest, but they are always my first choice when shopping for business or personal travel. More often than not they are cheaper or at least in-line with the “Big 3.” Consider the free bags and absence of fees, and Southwest almost always wins. Today I have offered nine reasons why Southwest is the best. But truly, I think it all boils down to one thing: The People.