What's next for Southwest Airlines? - Original Photo: Stephen M. Keller for Southwest Airlines

What’s next for Southwest Airlines? – Original Photo: Stephen M. Keller for Southwest Airlines

In 2016, I wrote a piece titled Nine Reasons Why I Think Southwest is the Best. For me, those nine reasons stand, even today. I still fly Southwest enough to renew my A-List elite flyer status annually. They are still my first choice when booking travel. There was a time not long ago that I would go out of my way to fly Southwest, and the overwhelming majority of my 20-30 trips a year were with the LUV airline. However, I would be remiss not to recognize that my mix of airlines flown is increasingly more diverse.

The airline’s piece of my overall business has been shrinking. This is a trend that I’ve been cognizant of on the periphery for a few years now. It is something I have long ignored because so much of what makes me an AvGeek is tied to my love, study, and ridership of Southwest. Many of my best aviation memories are linked to the airline. In December of 2017, I finished my most recent academic pursuit and received an M.A. in Organizational Leadership. My academic team and I frequently joked I minored in “Southwest Airlines” because so many of my projects focused on the company, their culture, and leadership philosophy. All of this, plus gobs of friends who are Southwest employees, I honestly feel as if I’m an honorary part of the family.

Here’s the tough question: If Southwest is always my first choice when picking a flight, why am I riding the other guys with more frequency? I have given this a lot of thought and I don’t think that this trend is because Southwest is doing anything particularly wrong. Rather, I think the competition has, in some cases, become way more competitive.

I have long kept a wishlist for the airline. Perhaps the implementation of a few of these would help the airline pull ahead of the competition where, in my mind, they have historically always been.  Without further ado, my wishlist, presented in David Letterman-reverse countdown style.

Southwest drink coupons. Upcoming SWA flight? Thirsty? Leave a comment and we'll hook you up. One per person, limit 5. Be sure your email address is current.

Southwest drink coupons. Upcoming SWA flight? Thirsty? Leave a comment and we’ll hook you up. One per person, limit five. Be sure your email address is current.

7. Coupons I can use

Southwest Airlines occasionally sends Rapid Rewards members coupons redeemable for free adult beverages. The magic ratio seems to be four coupons for ten one-way flights.

Note: The definition of one-way flight is something that seems to confuse folks. If I want to fly from Kansas City to San Antonio, I can pick a non-stop or I can connect in Dallas. Either way, that’s a one-way flight. Unless I book MCI-DAL and DAL-SAT separately. But I digress.

Here’s the problem: I don’t drink alcohol. Now, folks can opt-out of the program, but that’s leaving a perk on the table. I figure I might as well take the coupons and give them away. (Side note: If you spot me in the airport or at an event, say hi. Chances are I’ll have a coupon for you.)

While I love sharing the LUV and being a brand ambassador, I’d really prefer that these hard-earned coupons were redeemable for something I could actually use. As an example: Coupons for free or discounted WiFi would be nice, assuming the airline can get their IFC provider in check…but more on that later. Heck, even the ability to convert coupons into kick tails (employee recognition devices) would be neat.

Southwest's B/E Aerospace Meridian seats. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Southwest’s B/E Aerospace Meridian seats – Photo: Southwest Airlines

6. Accelerate new seat roll-out and extend deployment to the -700s as well.

Over three years ago, I wrote about Southwest’s new B/E Aerospace Meridian seats. In my opinion, they are a dramatic improvement over the old Innovator II seats, which are long past their prime. The extra space afforded by the Meridians is much appreciated, and something I look forward to. There is a major disparity between the comfort of new or updated planes, and the rest of the fleet. I’m sad to report that the vast majority of planes servicing my own Midwest-centric travel don’t have the Meridians. I’d estimate 75% of my flights still sport the structurally-tired Innovator IIs. Some of my recent flights have been with Innovator IIs reupholstered with the blue covering initially introduced with the Meridians. This doesn’t bode well for my hopes of seat upgrades.

5. I’m ready for buy on-board.

After the much-maligned termination of peanuts from onboard service, the airline’s go-to snack is now the lowly pretzel. Some flights offer Belvita breakfast crackers, Wheat Thins, or something comparable. But all of these options are crackers, and that no longer cuts it. The airline’s average miles flown per flight has risen nearly 50% since 1999, and it generally rises each year. Southwest offers transcons, and will soon launch service to Hawaii. It’s time to offer something more substantial. I’m happy to pay, or maybe apply the value of my drink coupons to discount a snack. To sweeten the attraction of this, I’m going to use two words that are irresistible to airline execs, even those at America’s most LUV’d airline: Ancillary revenue.

Side note: I’m writing this bit while en-route from RSW to MKE wishing I had time to stop for a quick meal before boarding. I’m now daydreaming of buy-on-board options offered by other airlines. The always-solid Alaska Airlines buy-on-board comes to mind. In my best Homer Simpson impression: “Mmmm, cheese plate.”

"Please

4. USB power would be nice

As discussed above, Southwest’s flights are getting longer. Add that the airline (correctly, in my opinion) opted for a BYOD (bring-your-0wn-device) entertainment solution. A need for power here seems a no-brainer. Furthermore, the airline recently announced expanded access to their entertainment library, which now includes on-demand movies which used to cost $5 each. This is great news, but again underscores the need for power.

I had the opportunity to ask Southwest CEO Gary Kelly about power options at a media event a few years back. Even then, the lack of power cast a shadow on the new Meridian seats and cabin refresh which were big news. Mr. Kelly said it was something they had considered and it might still be an option. I’m always happy to compromise; perhaps the airline could partner with a company such as FuelRod to sell/swap or rent chargers. The way I see it, this would be a very “Southwest” approach to solving the large and ever-growing problem.

Again with those magic words: Ancillary revenue.

A look under a Global Eagle Ku radome.

A look under a Global Eagle Ku radome – Photo: JL Johnson

3. How about some reliable Wifi?

Four years ago I wrote about Southwest’s BYOD entertainment and reviewed their IFC (in-flight connectivity) provider, then known as Row-44. The IFC portion of that story has not aged well. Constant unreliability and slowness of Southwest’s IFC solution have become a major pain point for customers and employees alike. As reported by The Business Journals, the issue has become so bad that the airline has repeatedly addressed it with cabin crew through various memos. While the complaints have existed for a while, the potency of the problem seems recently particularly pronounced.

Southwest’s IFC issues are not new. This came up at a Southwest-hosted media event in late 2015. Even then, shortcomings in expectations with the vendor were acknowledged by airline senior officials. The airline was said to be working with their partner GEE to address this in the coming months. I have long hoped for the improvements to come. Sorry to say, no progress that I can measure. If anything, it has gotten worse.

I reached out to Southwest for comment on their go-forward strategy. A representative replied with the following:

In December 2016 we issued a press release with the following: In mid-2017, Customers will be able to browse the Internet at increased speeds as a result of an expected bandwidth increase of at least three times more than what they currently experience, with an additional expected bandwidth increase in mid-2018. Connectivity speeds are expected to increase.

Global Eagle Entertainment has increased bandwidth speeds by nearly 7x compared to late 2016.

The company’s official position stands in stark contrast to my reality, and the experience faced by the droves of folks complaining on Twitter. How many have simply given up, accepted the fact that GEE is terrible, and don’t even bother trying? Is this the result of too many A-List Preferred members hogging bandwidth? Is it a hardware issue, or is GEE simply letting their acquired IFC product die on the vine?

So, what’s next for IFC? Tara Bamburg, Southwest’s Manager for WiFi and Inflight Entertainment, was able to confirm when I contacted her that that “MAX deliveries are coming from Boeing line-fit with Panasonic WiFi equipment.” This was music to my ears, but since reaching out the airline has since terminated their relationship with Panasonic.

Southwest declined to comment on the possibility of replacing the existing GEE product on already equipped planes. Allowing a solution with such a terrible track record to persist is a mistake. The airline would do well to hurry on a solution as IFC offerings by airlines across North America are only getting better.  Of note: Ted Christie, President of Spirit Airlines is now claiming that “By Summer 2019, every plane in our fleet should be fully equipped with Thales’ state-of-the-art connectivity service. Consider the reality of that statement: I’m comparing Southwest to Spirit. This would have been unheard of even a few years ago.

Some of Southwest's "Bags Fly Free" advertising.

Free bags are SWAwesome! But that means everyone checks them. – Photo: Southwest Airlines

2. Priority Bags

With Southwest Airlines, every passenger has the option to check up to two bags free of charge. Understandably so, lots of folks do it. As a frequent business traveler, this is great news for me in that there is typically plenty of room for my carry-on.

However, I do sometimes check a bag and find myself impatiently waiting at crowded carousels. Some airlines have priority baggage for elite flyers or those who pay for premium seating. I have experienced it a few times while treating myself. There’s something special about your bags being the first to arrive and being able to get on with your day. I’d love it if Southwest would do something like this for A-Listers. Furthermore, perhaps they could offer priority bag treatment as a “buy up” for folks who find value in such things. Using those magic words again, this is an excellent opportunity for more ancillary revenue.

1. Premium seating

Sometimes I want some extra room. The Meridian seats help, but as noted above, they are just too uncommon. For the moment, that means when I want to treat myself I have to take my business elsewhere, which I hate to do. I have long said that Spirit Airlines’ BFS (Big Front Seat) strikes the best balance between comfort and value in the American skies. I would love the ability to splurge on an equivalent Southwest option to the BFS. If not a BFS-compatible seat, how about a European short-haul business configuration with a blocked middle seat instead? An empty middle seat works wonders in personal space gains, and a removable headrest cover or seat sign would make for a customizable cabin solution with minimal investment and maximum flexibility.

For years, this level of complexity simply was not possible due to technology limitations. However, in 2017 the airline rolled out a new reservations system developed by Amadeus IT Group referred to internally as “OneRes.” Southwest President Tom Nealon has frequently been quoted stating that OneRes is “..the backbone to much of the airline’s technology.”  Now that the airline has the base-level capability to allow folks to pay for premium seating, why not use it? By the way, the new Amadeus IT solution came in at a whopping price tag of $500m, but was expected to pay for itself in “new revenue” through new “capabilities.” Again with the magic words: Ancillary revenue.

A Southwest Airlines 737 departs Midway Airport leaving behind the iconic Chicago skyline. Photo: Jim Wissemes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A Southwest Airlines 737 departs Midway Airport leaving behind the iconic Chicago skyline – Photo: Jim Wissemes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Conclusion:

I love Southwest. For years they have connected me to what is most important in my life and I’m happy to be a card-carrying A-List elite flyer. I am passionate about the airline and want what is best for it. I don’t expect that I have all of the answers but would like to think that adoption of even a few of the items I listed off would aid the airline in remaining competitive for the long term.

For most of their recent history, Southwest has been hard at work mastering huge business transformation projects: Integrating AirTran and launching international service, overhauling the backbone of the IT infrastructure, and most recently hurrying to retire old 737-300 and -500 planes in prep for the introduction of the new MAX variant. But all that work has been executed. What seems to remain is what I perceive to be a slow period for business transformation while previously laughable competition is now hot on their tail.

My call to action for Southwest leadership is simple: Embrace your warrior spirit and innovate as if your continued success depends on it – because it does!

Managing Correspondent - Lee's Summit, MO. JL joined AirlineReporter in 2012 and has since become one of our most tenured and prolific writers. His passions include catalyzing AvGeek passion in others, spending too much time on Twitter, and frequent travel. While he's always looking for the next big adventure, home is with his growing AvGeek family in Lee’s Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. Email: [email protected]

https://www.airlinereporter.com
Amazing in Africa: 2018 Was A Big Year for Ethiopian Airlines
19 Comments

Jesse…..great article and insight while measuring your LUV for SWA. KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL.
CC

Dianne Davis

We are two passengers with one brain! I hope SWA reads this article and listens closely. You have done them a tremendous favor with such specific feedback. May it all be so!!!!

From SWA-landia in Tulsa, OK

The thing wrong with Southwest Airlines is they don’t have many non stop flights out of
ISP Most Stop are in BWI
WITH A LAY OVER they should just move
Out of ISP THEY ARE NOT A
DISCOUNT AIRLINE JUST BECAUSE THEY Don’t charge for bags they nail you for
The Ticket. I have used Southwest several times but I found flying out of JFK A
LOT BETTER !! Not having to fly into BWI
I FLY DIRECT TO MY DESTINATION
and most times it’s cheaper.so Southwest just leave ISP if it wasn’t for the Deal the former Town Supvisor that cut a deal with them they probably would have never come to ISP

Good suggestions.
They are still my airline, and I will pay more to fly them.
Change in plans, no problem. Other airlines will just gobble up your fare with change fees.
My kids are in the military, changed schedules are a way of life.
Checked bags, no problem. Others will nickel and dime you.
Cheerful crews. Deadheading employees will chip in and help. See that anywhere else?
Southwest, my airline.

Thanks for reading and the comment, Warren. They are still my favorite airline. And no change fees is a huge advantage over the other guys. But that’s no excuse to not continue to innovate and ignore the competition.
The airline has for years been untouchable on many levels. Those days are coming to an end as the other guys innovate like crazy.

Be well,

JL, AirlineReporter

Francis Rogers

This not a reply this is a fact
JetBlue – out of JFK NON STOP – $507.20 Charge for Bags 2 @ $25 Each Free carry on
Southwest – Lay over 1-3 hrs most in BWI also on return 1 – 3 hrs Lay Over somewhere
Bags fly Free SO WHAT —THEY SUCK !!!!

My main problem with SW is their lack of codeshare and partnership with airline airlines. I used to fly SW a lot back in the 90’s as student in LA flying up and down the coast to home in San Jose. Now that I am working and traveling for both business and leisure, I never fly SW. The miles and dollars spent on SW go “nowhere” whereas the miles and dollars spent on UA (which I fly now) go everywhere. With all the flights I’ve done on UA, I’ve accumulated enough miles to complete 2 roundtrips between SFO and SYD and 4 times used miles to upgrade from econ to business classes from SYD to SFO. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I flew SW.

I’m thinking some runway arrestors, or maybe a tailhook system like aircraft carriers use…

I agree with you about the bigger seats up front. I am only 6’1″ and I have never been comfortable on SWA. I would fly them much more since they have such a big presence in SAN. Now I have to look to AA or Alaska.

Dennis Dockham

Francis, Perhaps you should just stick with flying out of JFK if that works for you. It doesn’t mean that SWA is a bad airline that they have to connect thru BWI, they just don’t have enough people from ISP going where you want to go. Personally I never minded going thru BWI.

Francis Rogers

Dennis: Be smart take a look at Flying Out of ISP To FLL & FLL to ISP the time for a Layover in BWI or Other Airports 1 ½ to 3 – 5 hours you have to be kidding me If you like sitting in a airport for an extended time go for it I prefer to get to my destination ASAP.
As for flying out of JFK I will always fly out of there . Hopefully when the contract runs out they LEAVE ISLIP.
I worked at ISP for 10 years watched so many Airlines leave ISP Because of the Flights & Prices charged back then they were a discount good priced Airlines. Just like Home Depot once you drive others out they Raise prices & SCREW THE PUBLIC . So ENJOY sitting in BWI hope you have a GREAT time.
I had friends that worked for SWA and also say THEY SUCK !!!! & QUIT . ENJOY THE DEAD BUTT FROM SITTING. Francis

This e-mail, and any attachments are strictly confidential and intended for the addressee(s) only. The content may also contain legal, professional or other privileged information. If you are not the intended recipient, please notify the sender immediately and then delete the e-mail and any attachments. You should not disclose, copy or take any action in reliance on this transmission.

You may report the matter by contacting us via our UK Contacts Page or our US Contacts Page (accessed by clicking on the appropriate link)

Please ensure you have adequate virus protection before you open or detach any documents from this transmission. National Grid plc and its affiliates do not accept any liability for viruses. An e-mail reply to this address may be subject to monitoring for operational reasons or lawful business practices.

For the registered information on the UK operating companies within the National Grid group please use the attached link: https://www.nationalgrid.com/group/about-us/corporate-registrations

This e-mail, and any attachments are strictly confidential and intended for the addressee(s) only. The content may also contain legal, professional or other privileged information. If you are not the intended recipient, please notify the sender immediately and then delete the e-mail and any attachments. You should not disclose, copy or take any action in reliance on this transmission.

You may report the matter by contacting us via our UK Contacts Page or our US Contacts Page (accessed by clicking on the appropriate link)

Please ensure you have adequate virus protection before you open or detach any documents from this transmission. National Grid plc and its affiliates do not accept any liability for viruses. An e-mail reply to this address may be subject to monitoring for operational reasons or lawful business practices.

For the registered information on the UK operating companies within the National Grid group please use the attached link: https://www.nationalgrid.com/group/about-us/corporate-registrations

Dennis Dockham

JL, I agree there needs to be more snack options, I have started to bring my own, that way I get what I want. Larger drinks, that little cup just doesn’t do it, give me the whole can. I also don’t drink alcohol, so another option would be nice.
Flights to South America would be very helpful. Now I use Copa for all my flights south. They are almost as good as SWA.

Chuck Finley

SWA needs to figure out how brakes and thrust reversers work first.

You must fly into Midway…..lol

Jim Twyford

Great article, wish they would do more interconnecting flights, such as Atlanta to Liberia CR, without having to book two separate flights through Houston, retrieve and recheck baggage, etc.

I agree whole heartedly on this. My fiancé and I had to be crazy creative to get from PHX to AUA. Including an overnight in HOU and connection in FLL. Not easy at all.

Glen Towler

Hi JL great article my friend. I am also a fan of SWA their customer service is second to none. When I travel SWA I always check a bag as I am on my way to or from EAA air venture Oshkosh. Their lack of fees is just awesome compared to other airlines. I would like USB power but that is not a big issue for me as I always bring back up power. I do always buy the early bird boarding ticket it is $16 well spent as one flight last year I got seat 1A.
I do hope to see you and your bride at Oshkosh this year.

Thanks for reading, Glen. Unsure if we can make it this year but it’s a definite maybe. We shall see!

John Fazzini

Nice article. I travel internationally, so I have appreciation for most of the airlines.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *