Nearly all of the flights during my August Baseball Road trip were on Southwest Airlines. Since I was originating and finishing the trip in Atlantic City, and that is not an airport served by Southwest – it was the notable exception. Southwest serves lots of destinations in the US and is now starting to serve some locations in Mexico and the Caribbean too.
Southwest has a different business model than other air carriers. I have become a true believer that they are better than the others, and love to fly them now. I wasn’t always a Southwest fan. Before I flew my first SWA flight, I observed their boarding procedure and thought it seemed like a “cattle-car” process. And since I understood they had no assigned seating, I imagined it to be chaotic and did not understand or appreciate the system and just how smoothly it tends to operate.
In addition, over the past 10 years, most airlines have instituted policies which are downright unfriendly to fliers – and have tacked-on fees, which in some cases are outrageous for baggage or flight changes. Southwest is different.
On Southwest bags fly free – not just your first bag but your second checked bag as well – and if you prefer to carry-on a bag, you are not charged for that either.
If you book a flight and have to change it, you don’t pay a change fee; and the full amount of your original ticket is credited to whatever new itinerary you choose. If the price of the new itinerary is higher, you’ll be charged the difference and if it’s lower, you receive a credit for the balance, good for up to a year from your original purchase date.
You can cancel a flight up to an hour or so prior to scheduled departure and still have this full amount credited. You can use “stored” credits from up to three flights to apply against a new flight.
If you book a flight, and the price then goes down, you can re-book it at the new, lower price and store the credit. Since SWA has fairly regular Fare Sales, this is not uncommon and can represent a considerable savings.
The boarding process is simple. When you book your flight, you can opt to buy what is called “early bird check-in”. It costs $15 additional for each flight segment. SWA opens the check-in process 24 hours before the flight is scheduled to depart. At that point, you (and everyone else on that flight) can log on to Southwest.com or use the SWA app on a smart phone to check-in. When you check-in on line, you are given a “boarding group” A, B or C and a number 1 thru 60. This signifies the order in which passengers line-up to board the flight. If you are quick with logging-in, right at the point that that flight opens for check-in, you’ll likely get a good boarding group – an “A” or a low “B”. If you spent the extra $15 and purchased early-bird check-in, you need not worry about logging-in immediately since the system will automatically check you in and you’ll get the best position available in the order in which you purchased the early-bird premium.
While SWA does not have a premium/ first class cabin – all seats are in one class of service – it also offers a “business select fare” which automatically carries a boarding group of A1-A15 and I believe it gets you a free drink on board and additional points for your purchase. You can also buy a fare which is a flexible fare at a premium. This allows you to change to a different flight on the same route on the same day without paying a difference in fare (if the actual new fare has changed). Southwest also celebrates select holidays — the 4th of July, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day to name a few — with a free alcoholic beverage for those who drink… Yep, on the house just for flying with them that particular day.
Flexibility is what it’s all about—and it works. SWA is one of the few, if not the only US-based airlines which is consistently profitable. And they do it without ripping you off by charging all those extra fees for baggage or for flight changes.
The boarding process actually enables them to be quicker and more efficient in loading the aircraft. If you want an aisle or a window and one is open, you pick it and get seated quickly. If you are in the “C” group on a full flight, you are bound to have a middle seat but you can at least pick who you want to sit with to avoid the large passenger in row 8 who may not allow you any elbow room. If you are the unfortunate last person boarding the plane, you will definitely be in that middle seat in row 8 so you will live with it…
Overall, though, it works and is a fairly smooth process.
Beyond the above, what I truly enjoy the most about SWA are the flight attendants and the sense of humor they display. Believe it or not, Southwest hires with a profile which looks for outgoing, friendly and engaging personalities. Their process is pretty rigorous and I have heard it described by my counterpart who was the head of HR there as a key factor in developing the unique culture which they have. Several years ago, I hired a former Southwest HR person into my own HR department and they brought a lot of good skills in assessing people – no doubt gained from working in this environment.
Here are some sound-bites of Southwest flight attendant humor- just to give a flavor of the entertainment for those who may never have experienced it.
At the outset of a flight, FAA regulations require that safety procedures be explained and demonstrated. Southwest meets these requirements, but often they do it with a flair and an additional dose of humor which causes passengers to actually pay attention to the messages.
“In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, a mask will drop down from the overhead compartment. Even though the bag may not inflate, oxygen will be flowing into the mask. Please grab the mask, pull to extend the tubing, place the mask over your nose and mount and breathe normally. If you are traveling with small children or someone who needs assistance, please secure your mask first before assisting others.
(Ad lib addition) — Now you may ask – what if I am traveling with more than one child? Which one should I assist first? My suggestion is that you choose the one with the greatest potential and assist that one first… If you are traveling with a husband who does not do well listening to instructions, you may assist him like a child or if he’s got a lot of insurance, you can let the cards fall where they may…”
Normally passengers are roaring when these otherwise monotonous announcements are “improvised” by SWA crew members.
Here’s another which I heard on my recent trip:
“If you are seated in an exit row, you must be able to handle the functions noted on the card in your seat back pocket in order to assist the crew in the event of an emergency. If you cannot perform these functions, please advise a crew member and they will reseat you. If you choose not to perform these functions, please notify a crew member and they will reseat you. And if you simply do not give a function, please let the crew member know and they will reseat you too…”
And another from an earlier trip:
“In the event of a water landing, please remove the life vest which is stored in the pouch beneath your seat, place it over your head, loop the strap around your waste and snap it in the ring in the front of you.
Now since today’s flight path should not take us over any water whatsoever, if we have a water landing, we have bigger problems than how to put on your life vest… but that’s another story.”
And yet another:
“Please fasten your seat belt by putting the flat edge into the buckle and then pulling it low and tight across your lap – that’s right – just the way you like to wear them skinny jeans low and tight across your lap…”
On a recent SWA flight as the Flight Attendant was welcoming passengers aboard and making some preliminary announcements, she was (rudely but in I am sure a planned, humorous manner) interrupted by the Captain who said:
“Excuse me, excuse me, Susan, I am sorry to interrupt but Welcome aboard folks, this is your extremely handsome Captain speaking. I just want to tell you that you are very fortunate to be flying with us today on this flight. Not only is your Captain extremely handsome, but he is indeed one of the very best pilots in the entire Southwest fleet. In the event that you peeked into the cockpit when you boarded and saw just how extremely handsome your Captain is, I did not want you to think that he gets by just on his absolutely incredible good looks. He is in fact one of the best pilots in the fleet. However, if you are still concerned, I also want to let you know that all Southwest flights also have a co-pilot; in our case, Ted, who is with me up front. And in addition to your extremely handsome Captain who is one of the very best rated pilots, our co-pilot, Ted, is also highly qualified and fully capable of flying this plane as well. If you looked in the cockpit as you boarded the flight and caught a glimpse of Ted, you know that there is no way he’s gotten by on his looks – no way whatsoever – so please be assured that his proficiency as a co-pilot is rock solid and between Ted and your extremely handsome Captain, we will do our very best to provide you with a smooth flight and an on-time arrival at our destination. Thanks and with that, I will hand it back to Susan.”
Susan: “Thanks Captain, and let me add that all our passengers should be very grateful that they only have to fly one flight with our Captain today…”
On a flight landing in Minneapolis, a flight attendant actually serenaded the plane with a song she had written to the tune of the “Beverly Hillbillies theme” I wish I could remember the words but I was laughing so hard I can’t recall them.
On my flight from Seattle to Chicago – which was relatively long, the flight attendant came on the microphone as we were beginning our decent and in a very soft, gentle voice said the following:
“Now folks, it’s been a long flight and I am sure all of you will be happy once we’ve landed. You’ve been a great group of passengers and I appreciate that it’s been difficult to sit for all this time, so I want to go through some stretching exercises with you before we land. I’d like everyone to stop whatever you may be doing and put both your hands in the air above your head…. (pause) that’s right everyone, including you folks in the back – please put both hands in the air over your head. OK, now I want you to stretch and lean to the right side… that’s it – stretch it out… and now to the left side – there, doesn’t that feel good to stretch like this…. And now I want you to stretch out in front of you and reach into those seat back pockets and pull out any of the trash or junk that you are not otherwise going to take off this aircraft and give all of it to your flight attendants who will be passing thru the aisles to collect it shortly. Thank you.
Just some samples of Southwest humor at its best… Ya gotta love it…