Southwest Airlines: We’re Not Really About Cheap Flights Anymore

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Southwest Airlines passenger planes are seen at Chicago's Midway Airport on May 31, 2012

The U.S.’s biggest “low fare” airline appears to be experiencing an identity crisis. In Southwest’s new ad campaign, there’s no silly humor and no mention of “bags fly free” or cheap flight prices. The message is that this is a different airline — one that longtime customers may feel is hard to recognize or even like.

“The campaign is a departure in tonality for Southwest, and we hope it inspires our customers,” Southwest executive Bob Jordan said in a press release announcing its new commercial, which debuted during the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. “Southwest has changed a lot over the years, we keep getting better, and we want customers to see us in a new light.”

The ad will come as “a shock” to TV viewers, according to the Chicago Business Journal, because of the disappearance of “all the silly, cartoonish aspects of its advertising.” The ad features no goofball humor, nor any messages about Southwest’s low fares or its value-laden “bags fly free” policies that tell the masses “you are now free to move about the country.” Instead, the commercial is filled with images of people diligently going about their jobs, as well as heartwarming clichés like “The American dream just doesn’t happen. It’s something you have to work for.”

The image of Southwest as a plucky upstart taking on the industry giants is, in other words, totally gone. We’re left with the Southwest logo and a voice-over claiming its status as “America’s largest domestic airline.”

(MORE: What Can Consumers Expect From the American–US Airways Merger? Nothing Good)

Among travel insiders, the ad is being viewed as a sign of a possible “identity crisis” within Southwest. The CrankyFlier bashes the commercial, which is probably unsurprising given the name of the blog. “This ad is just pure … bleh,” the post states. “It says nothing to me. This could be for Southwest or any other legacy airline.”

No song lyrics are audible during the ad, but the CrankyFlier’s Brett Snyder identifies the tune playing in the background and notes that the chorus ironically includes the line “Oh, Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for.”

One reason that Southwest seems to be saying it no longer stands (just) for low fares is that, in recent studies, the airline has been shown to not always have the cheapest flights. The research firm Topaz International conducted a survey of 100 routes flown by Southwest, and here’s what it discovered:

When comparing airfare only, competing airlines were lower than Southwest Airlines over 60% of the time, and higher than Southwest Airlines 35% of the time. This result is surprising given the perception in the marketplace, and with many travel managers, that Southwest Airlines is in fact the low-cost carrier in all markets they serve.

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The study seems to confirm the data dug up by the Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney in 2011, when the travel columnist reported that Southwest’s flight prices had risen substantially — up 39% over the preceding five years, compared with 10% for the industry as a whole — and that it tended to charge more on routes where it was the dominant carrier.

It must be noted, however, that the Topaz results above are based on “comparing airfare only,” without incorporating the costs of checked bags. For years, Southwest has loudly celebrated its “bags fly free” policy in ads playing up the value it offered travelers compared with nearly all other airlines — which can charge $25 and up for each piece of checked luggage. When the costs of one checked bag were factored in, Topaz found that Southwest was the cheapest option 60% of the time.

Though the CrankyFlier’s Snyder is obviously not a fan of Southwest’s new commercial because it makes it seem like every other airline out there, he says Southwest is still different from the competition in a few key ways. “The most obvious difference is that Southwest hasn’t gone with the a-la-carte model of pricing and instead continues to bundle things like bag fees and change fees into the price of the ticket,” Snyder said via e-mail. “That’s why you often see that Southwest isn’t the cheapest anymore.” Also, Southwest’s customer-service model, loaded with “employees that are empowered to solve problems,” is generally superior to the ham-fisted bureaucracies in other airlines’ customer-service departments, according to Snyder.

So even as fares have risen, Southwest still sets itself apart with good customer service and the checked-bags value proposition. But for how long? Southwest has already been following the industry’s lead by adding new fees for services like priority boarding, and more nickel-and-diming practices seem inevitable. Snyder worries that Southwest will struggle to maintain top-notch service, especially since it swallowed AirTran — which was also known as a low-fare carrier, but one with a very different customer-service environment.

At SmarterTravel.com, frequent-flyer expert Tim Winship reported that Southwest CFO Tammy Romo stated at a conference that the airline would be tightening restrictions on flights this year. She was also extremely noncommittal about whether Southwest would maintain its long-standing “bags fly free” policy:

I don’t think our brand is Bags Fly Free, that’s not who we are. As I mentioned, our brand is the affordable fares that you get with Southwest and the friendly, warm service that you get from our employees. So I don’t think — an advertising campaign is not your brand. So at least, that’s my belief. And we’ll continue to look at our plan and adjust as we need to meet our financial objectives.

(MORE: Why an Airline That Travelers Love Is Failing)

George Hobica, who runs AirfareWatchdog.com, says Southwest may very well be “de-emphasizing ‘bags fly free’ as a prelude to start charging for bags.” No plans have been announced, however. Regardless, based on how big and powerful Southwest has become, and based on the image projected in its new ad campaign, no one should continue to view the airline as an offbeat little upstart company.

“Bottom line, we now really have four major domestic carriers,” says Hobica. “Southwest is one of the big boys now and wants to be recognized as such.”

Here’s the ad if you’d like to watch it:

24 comments
lopezadair12
lopezadair12

It looks like Southwest Airlines really suffering from Crisis. I have used to travel a lot with them but now it looks difficult to travel with them any more. But I can say that services are better before then this current time. And better then other all airlines. But now i am looking for cheap tickets to New york from http://www.nanakflights.com/flights-to-newyork.asp for traveling.

JeremyHerring
JeremyHerring

I don't think it's identity crisis but rather a subtle and deliberate shifting of the message.  In many ways SWA is the last holdout on the baggage revenue bonanza but that cannot last so they have to begin changing the message BEFORE they start changing the policy... unlike the other airlines that can invent new fees literally overnight.

cheapflightstrip
cheapflightstrip

Amazing post. Southwest Airlines’ admirable services and amazing hospitality, the airline has received number of awards till now from various organizations  Services and Comfort Provided in Various Classes of Southwest Airlines.

freedda
freedda

I have always liked flying SW and find they are the best deal for many, but not all, destinations. I think they allow the first two bags to be checked in free, so if you were to add $100 to the other airlines' price (2 bags @25.00 in both directions), I'm sure SW fares would be even better.

I know it's a sign of the times, but I hate paying for checking bags. I just wish the airlines would add the cost of baggage to the overall price and not keep adding fees, which whether or not they are up front with them, end up feeling like hidden fees.

One of the downsides of the baggage fees is people now take way too large and too many bags onboard and they are not monitored closely, which is a drag for those of us who try to follow the rules. I remember seeing one woman bring 3-4 department store shopping bags on with her and no one said a thing.  

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

SW has the reputation for fares but I find they rarely have a better deal if you are willing to do a little shopping.For an infrequent flyer their FF program is horrible.I have amassed a lot of points with two legacy programs that make it fairly easy to not lose your points, whereas I’ve lost all points with SW over 15 years.Right now, only the “bags fly free” distinguishes them.I don’t care for their ABC boarding, in fact I hate it when I’m travelling without a computer (I don’t take work with me on business!).Their lack of cooperation with other airlines is a problem too.In short, I’m not a huge fan and don’t really understand the adoration they get, except their FA’s are funny sometimes.All airlines can screw up, and all do.Others hate Delta, USAIR, AA but I find they have many advantages, including going to places you might really want to go to with your FF miles.

BrianAnderson
BrianAnderson

Is it me or does the dialogue in the ad sound like the famous apple campaign, "here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels..." Seemed like a less good, Everyman version.

Denesius
Denesius

I am a frequent flyer, and have flown SWA exclusively for 7 years, unless my destination is not on their route.  I could care less about their free peanuts & drinks, but I take issue with comparison to other airlines' fares. Yes, if I'm travelling naked and bare handed, I can find cheaper flights. But on a recent travel on Frontier, my bargain fare didn't include 1-charge for my checked luggage, 2-charge for my seat, 3-charge comparable to the price of the ticket if I had to make a change, 4-cost of aggravation in dealing with their crabby employees, and 5-cost of dealing with my fellow Greyhound crowd & their pathetic attempts to lug on board oversized luggage so they wouldn't have to pay for checking them.  I'm amazed SWA still allows 2 bags for free, and I'll support them even if they drop down to 1. SWA has a long way to fall before they become just another legacy carrier.

lordofthefly
lordofthefly

They're not really about me flying them anymore, either.

Travel is picking up, no doubt, but too many businesses are acting like our economy is out of the woods. It isn't, and isn't likely to be for another 3-5 years. So I guess SW and other airlines can charge outrageous ticket prices and fees for those who can afford to pay them. Most people can't - and won't.

BrianChestnut
BrianChestnut

I used to fly SW for 2 reasons. 

1.) They had an incredible frequent flyer program  2.)  Bags fly free

They screwed #1 up and I talked myself into staying with them.  If they screw #2 up I am going to shop for a new airline.  No point in paying more for less.

ricport
ricport

I have avoided WN for years. I don't want to be treated like a drinking buddy down at the local hole in the wall; I want to be treated like a customer. I still get far more on a legacy carrier, like upgrades, free bag (I am a FF), and the chance to earn miles towards free F travel to almost anywhere in the world. This still trumps WN, where I have the chance to earn miles for that free cattle-class ticket to exotic destinations like Omaha and Amarillo.

SteveSchwartz
SteveSchwartz

Awesome! Congratulations Southwest!  You have now succeed in making your brand absolutely, completely and remarkably... Average!  You are now free to mingle about with the other 'average' carriers.

kbrawn
kbrawn

Southwest has gotten too big to be a low cost airline anymore.  And by incorporating all the fees into their fare, they are losing business from people like me who never check a bag (we went to Europe for 11 days with one carry-on each), never change flights, and never use the other services that they now bundle into their fares.  They are costing too much, and I don't fly them nearly as often as I used to.

JohnnyTriumph
JohnnyTriumph

If 'Bags fly free' is not part of the Southwest brand then they've got serious identity problems.  They're falling behind and they know it; why pay a similar price AND have to fight for a seat on the plane?  I'll stick with other legacy carriers and get more benefits: a seat assignment, FF points that can actually get me decent places, free bags with my branded credit card, and a similar price on the seat.  I haven't seen a Southwest fare in years that made me want to fly on them, I can usually fly for a similar price AND avoid connections.

kppurk
kppurk

It's like the mainstream ads but they still keep it just a little quirky, just like Southwest. They are a lot like a legacy carrier, but just a little quirky. I mean there is a man running in a super hero costume and a model with a two foot mo-hawk for goodness sake. And another line from that song involves a call to war and a notion that they try twice as hard and are half as liked. I think it's perfect for an awesome company who is willing to grow and learn and do things a little different from the rest.

robyng01
robyng01

I have always loved to fly Southwest.  They are fun, have great customer service and low fares.  But the main reason was because they DIDN'T act like the mainstream airlines (i.e. stuffy, expensive, better than everyone else).  Southwest makes it enjoyable to fly.  Please don't change!

RunningJock
RunningJock

100% awesome! Southwest IS awesome! :)

firefly212
firefly212

I used to fly SW all the time, but lately I've begun to fly Jetblue... slightly better planes, friendlier service, and they still have that laid-back, fun attitude. SWA's lack of brand differentiation isn't a good thing at all... there are plenty of stuffy airlines that already cop an attitude that somehow the business travelers are better than people who travel weekly or bi-weekly for fun, friends, and family. Growing up doesn't have to mean growing boring, and I really hope SWA goes back to its roots before it gets so far away it can't remember how it got there.

bedwards65
bedwards65

It's not clear how long Southwest can keep on floating on it reputation for low cost fares and great customer service.  The money is with business travelers and without a business class, they will never be able to compete with the legacy carriers effectively for those business dollars.   Leisure travelers care about price.  The new ad is not "inspiring."  It's vanilla and bo-ring.  If they are scrambling to differentiate themselves, this isn't the way to do it.  I always liked the quirkiness, fun and feistiness of the Southwest brand.  With Herb gone, it's obvious the bean counters are in charge.  Now it's just another airline.....with no business class.  How do they expect to remain competitive? Know it's a tough market, but I question their new ad campaign strategy.  It sounds more like United than Southwest.

lordofthefly
lordofthefly

@kbrawn 

No one flies anything as often as they used to. The really high rollers have corporate and/or private jets. That leaves the rest of us to fly now and then.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

Ugh - don't compare anyone to United.  Southwest at least empowers its employees to make customer service decisions and most of them have a good attitude. United employees seem specifically trained to be surly.  In just over a year since the merger they've destroyed what was the best of the majors, Continental.

bedwards65
bedwards65

@lordofthefly @kbrawn There are still plenty of business travelers whose companies pay their fares.  I'm just not sure that Southwest can take much of that business away from the legacy carriers because they don't have a business class, and their Business Select program probably won't attract anyone more than the already loyal customers.  I think they are in for a tough time.  I love Southwest and fly them when their prices are competitive and I don't have to make more than one stop or connection.

bedwards65
bedwards65

@bryanfred1 I agree.  I was referring to the ad campaigns.  Southwest is a great airlines with extraordinary customer service.  What has set them apart is their quirkiness and sense of fun, especially in their ad campaigns.  I just don't think that making their ads more like the other legacy carriers will attract more business customers....unless they follow AirTran's example and offer business class.