A few weeks ago, my esteemed colleague JL Johnson penned a piece extolling the virtues of his favorite carrier, Southwest Airlines. He laid out nine reasons why Southwest was tops in his mind, and quite honestly I didn’t disagree with any of the facts he laid out on why the airline is so immensely popular with so many people.
However, with all the positives Southwest has under its belt, I personally can’t remember the last time I stepped foot on a Southwest 737… at least seven-to-eight years, I think. So if Southwest isn’t so bad, and I think it’s a perfectly fine airline, why have I clocked about 800,000 miles without a single Southwest flight?
First, let’s get one thing clear: This piece isn’t meant to be a hostile response to JL or his story, or even as a “Southwest is bad” take-down rant. Like I said, he has valid points, and Southwest is a fine airline, one that I even recommend others to fly. The goal of this piece is to give those who are wondering some insight into why someone might choose not to fly Southwest.
For myself, I stick to the one-two punch of American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, dabbling in a few other carriers as the need arises. I have mid-tier elite status with both (lifetime status with American), but that being said there are of course issues that pop up here and there. However, though I would earn A-List status with Southwest if I shifted all my flying over, I would still choose to fly with American/Alaska. Even when neither of those are reasonable options, I actually will still actively avoid Southwest and take other competitors.
Below are nine reasons why I don’t feel the LUV…
#1: Southwest’s Culture
JL says, “I can’t tell you how often I catch Southwest folks having a good time while simultaneously entertaining and engaging flyers.”
I will happily concede that Southwest employees are usually genuinely helpful and happy to be at their jobs, and I’ve never had a customer service issue when I did fly with them. But what may be endearing to some passengers could be off-putting to others, myself included.
Take, for example, the oft-cited stories of Southwest flight attendants and their funny flight safety announcements, many of which you can find on YouTube (like this one). Comedy is in the eye of the beholder, and I don’t find most of the “off kilter” announcements that funny (and didn’t find that video funny). Call me a square, but I’d rather get regular, even-keeled announcements for a couple of reasons: a) I enjoy a nice, quiet, peaceful journey; b) it gives non-native English speakers a chance to understand the safety briefing; and c) it keeps the crew from inadvertently making comments they thought were funny but ended up being awkward (like all those flight attendants who liked to joke to passengers about their airline’s bankruptcy).
What I would like even more is if the safety demos were played over screens, either on the seat-back or at the very least on overhead flip-down screens. Southwest has neither.
I would love to have happy, outgoing crew members all the time… I just don’t want them to be so in-your-face, or blasting their voices over the PA, about it.
#2: The Fleet
JL says: “Southwest Airlines operates the world’s largest fleet of [all] Boeing 737s… Why is the fleet a selling point for prospective customers? Consistency… 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.”
I do love me some 737s, and I can appreciate that it’s easier and less expensive to maintain a single-aircraft fleet, so the savings are theoretically passed onto the passenger. I can also see how it’s nice to know that your favorite seat will likely be in the same spot on every plane, regardless of flight or changes (though the introduction of the larger 737-800 might have made things a bit more complicated).
But to me, an all-737 fleet means one thing: There are no other aircraft in the fleet! As both a passenger and an #AvGeek, I like the variety of manufacturers and types. While domestically I’m pretty likely to still fly 737s and Airbus A320-type equipment, I still have shots at flying wide-bodies on some American routes, like the 767s, 777s, and 787s… or even regional jets. And lest we forget, American’s and Alaska’s partners fly everything from Airbus A380s to Saab 340Bs.
I will grant that Southwest has some of the best looking, most vibrant special liveries out there, but special liveries still abound at the other carriers. There’s definitely something for everyone… sports fans, kids, history buffs, etc. And the liveries are on the outside… I can see planes like Texas One just fine from my seat… that I pre-selected… likely near the front… on American or Alaska.
Using JL’s source, Southwest indeed came in at an 84.1% on-time year-to-date average through March 2016 (the latest available data), while American came in at 81.1% (national average was 82.1%). Here’s the shocker… these are the on-time percentages for 2015:
- American = 80.3%
- Southwest = 79.7%
- All airlines = 79.9%
Yes indeed, American had a better on-time performance than Southwest (albeit by a slight margin) last year. Bear in mind, this was also in the midst of their merger with US Airways, with a single operating certificate issued in April 2015, and the official decommissioning of the US Airways brand the following October.
Now, to be fair, I’ve had flight issues pop up, but American has never failed to aim for the best possible outcome, including rebooking me onto another carrier if needed. This is not an option at Southwest; it can only rebook you on one of its own flights, as Southwest is not connected to any other airline through their proprietary reservation system.
American has the reliability that Southwest has, backed up by connectivity that Southwest does NOT have.
#4: Surprises and Delights
While I don’t get birthday cards and cases of coffee (and I would love to… can someone send me some Biscoffs or Stroopwafels?), I do enjoy the more mundane things in life that are available on American/Alaska, especially as an elite.
- A Chance at Upgrades:
Southwest’s egalitarian tendencies are quaint, but I’ve tasted the good life of bigger and better seats. While upgrades are on a space-available basis on my preferred carriers, my chances of upgrading into first class on Southwest, A-Lister or not, are exactly ZERO. And going back to the variety of aircraft at AA’s disposal, I have a chance of getting an internationally-configured premium cabin with lie-flat seats on a domestic trip.
- Airport Lounges:
Again, the chances of visiting a Southwest lounge during my travels are exactly ZERO, while I have the opportunity to do so (under certain circumstances) when flying my preferred carriers. Being able to refresh, relax, and recharge before and/or after a long flight is a huge benefit.
#5: No Fees
I share JL’s aversion to fees, and I likewise throw shade at the likes of Spirit and Frontier. Southwest’s “No Fees” policy is pretty outstanding and customer-friendly, a strong competitive advantage, and marketing gold in today’s world. While I’m fortunate to avoid most fees by virtue of my status (checked baggage, standby, seat selection), I am stuck with change/cancellation fees on American per my fare rules (Alaska waives these for me). For me though, the pain of change fees is mitigated by my ability to standby for free for earlier or later flights, allowing my ticket to be semi-flexible when I need it on the day of departure.
Anecdotally, I have been the beneficiary of courtesy customer service gestures (definitely because of status) of fee waivers for date changes and cancellations with reason. While I don’t rely on this being the norm, I do feel taken care of, and the rare change fee I do have to pay is small in comparison to all the benefits I’ve had over the past several years.
As for baggage fees, as an elite I get these waived as well, yet another reason I remain loyal… but it’s pretty sweet to the regular passenger that Southwest gives two free checked baggage to everyone (for now, at least).
#6: Freedom to Move About the Cabin
“Southwest doesn’t have seat assignments… for me, it’s liberating.” – JL Johnson
To be honest, I don’t like the mad boarding rush to grab a seat; I prefer the freedom to pick my seat beforehand. I don’t like that the availability of a preferred seat (and overhead space!) is dictated in large part by how much time before departure I check in, and is made even more difficult if there’s a through-flight and there are already passengers on board (plus Southwest’s non-policy allowing passengers to save whole rows of seats, either for people at the end of boarding or even just themselves). And really, there are only a few seats that are preferable on the Southwest seat map; the bulkhead and exit rows. On American or Alaska, even if I don’t get upgraded, I will have already selected my preferred seat, guaranteeing more legroom (in either bulkhead, exit, or in AA’s extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra section), being closer to the front of the cabin, my preferred window seat, or some/all of the above.
As a bonus, most other airlines hold back seats for elites and full-fare tickets, even if the other seats are all taken; this gives late-bookers a chance at a decent seat towards the front of the plane without having to sweat bullets as the timer ticks down to T-24 hours.
#7: Award-Winning Rewards Program
Southwest’s Rapid Rewards won the Freddie Award for “Program of the Year” this year.
Looking at the past 10 years, American’s AAdvantage program won in 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012, while Alaska’s Mileage Plan won in 2009 and 2008, so plenty of accolades to go around. On top of that, American and Alaska have split the last ten years of “Best Elite Program” (six and four years, respectively), while Southwest has never won in that category.
AAdvantage has been my go-to program for award redemptions, with Mileage Plan coming in a very close second. What do both of these programs offer me that Rapids Rewards cannot? International travel. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who was able to turn in all their Rapid Reward points for a first-class ticket to Asia, Europe, South Pacific, Africa, or South America. While awards are based on availability, I’ve rarely had problems finding seats with a little patience and flexibility. (Editor’s Note: This is the single biggest reason I don’t embrace Southwest either-BN)
JL calculates that “each Rapid Rewards point is worth 1.43 cents when redeemed at the lowest fare class.” One of my personal best redemptions was an AAdvantage award for a round-trip first class seat on Japan Airlines from the U.S. to Southeast Asia. That redemption cost a cool 130,000 miles; purchasing the fare would have cost in the realm of $16,000, making each AAdvantage mile worth about 12.3 cents. Since I aim to earn miles at a rate of about 1.5 cents each, that is a net added value of about 10.8 cents per mile. Even using current figures (after a recent increase in award prices), it would still come out to at least 6.4 cents per mile in redemption value.
As for super elite status, the magic 100,000-mile threshold on American doesn’t give me a free companion pass, but I would get international upgrades, first class international lounge access, much easier domestic upgrades, 100% bonus on flown miles, and all sorts of other goodies that can be shared with whoever my flying companion is. At 75,000 miles on Alaska, you get top priority for domestic upgrades, 125% bonus on flown miles, and 50,000 bonus miles for crossing the threshold, among other things.
Southwest has a very strong domestic route network but very little international presence and no partners. American has a strong domestic network and very decent international route map, bolstered by the oneworld alliance for worldwide coverage. Alaska has a good domestic network focused on the U.S. west coast, with a wide gamut of international partners.
The truth is that getting to Paris, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires won’t involve Southwest for the time being.
#9: Shareholder Return
Southwest’s financials don’t lie, they have excelled in the industry, bar-none. Passengers want comfort at a lower price, and shareholders want maximum profitability; many times these are mutually exclusive goals, but Southwest managed to deliver to their customers’ satisfaction while keeping their investors smiling all the way to the bank, while the airline industry in the last couple of decades has been fraught with operating losses and littered with dozens of defunct airlines and a series of mergers.
American admittedly has had a rough last several years, culminating in declaring bankruptcy and being taken over by smaller rival US Airways. However, the ship seems to have righted itself, with AA reporting a net profit of $6.3 billion in 2015, which was up by 50% from the previous year. Alaska is also operating at a profit, scoring $191 million net in 2015. Things are good throughout the airline accounting world, especially compared to just a few years ago.
Southwest: It’s Not You, It’s Me
To reiterate, I do think Southwest is a great company and runs a great, safe, efficient airline. I have no qualms recommending it to those who don’t fly too often. Given the right conditions, I wouldn’t hesitate to join the boarding queue myself (hopefully with an “A” boarding pass). But my priorities are a bit different, and what I value when I fly are things that Southwest either can’t compete with or doesn’t offer at all. To Southwest: “It’s not you, it’s me… I just don’t LUV you like that.”