Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Trip Report: Southwest Airlines

For years I have heard of the legend of Southwest Airlines. Their prices are great, you sit wherever you want, and the company has been by far the most profitably airline in the United States for decades.

Unfortunately, I have spent most of the last 30 years of my life living in cities that did not have service with Southwest Airlines, specifically Atlanta and Denver. That is the thing with Southwest, historically, they have been very picky with which cities they fly to. While airlines like Delta are constantly seeking new service to fly to every paved airstrip within 8,000 miles of Atlanta, Southwest, the largest domestic airline (by passengers), doesn't even serve Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world. That is because they expand slowly and only wish to fly to cities that they could make a profit from. That policy is changing as they have recently announced service to New York LaGuardia and other cities that once lacked their service.

Two years ago, they decided to start a hub in Denver. Interestingly, almost every city they fly to is a hub of some sort. You can connect between almost every city they serve, unlike most airlines that only have a handful of major hubs.

On our trip last week, we went from Denver to Ft. Lauderdale and continued on to Tampa before returning to Denver. Each leg of the trip was priced and purchased separately. After I booked it, I realized that I had entered one of the dates wrong. With any other airline, this error on my part would have incurred a hefty change fee at best. With Southwest, there are no change fees at all. You always have the option of booking a new flight, at whatever price is currently available, using the money paid for your existing reservation as a credit. If the new flight is less than your reservations, you receive a refund as a credit towards a future flight.

Before you say that Southwest is giving away money with this policy, consider my experience: The price drops on my Florida trip, so I received a credit towards a future flight. I actually did this twice in the three months between my initial reservation and the trip, as airfares plummeted with the price of crude. The credits were part of our payment for our next trip on Southwest to San Diego. Just today, the price dropped on our San Diego trip to an incredible $59 each way, resulting in a further flight credit. I am now just starting to wonder how I can fly Southwest again using that credit! It appears to be a win-win policy for everyone, yet no other airline I know of works like this.

I have to say that our first impression with Southwest at the airport was a little strange. We are traveling with our 18 month old daughter, as we have many times before. At check in, Southwest insisted on documentation of her age, unlike Airtran, United, and Frontier have when we flew them domestically. They relented, but it was odd that they would not take the word of the child's parents, as every other business does. They even tried hard to blame FAA regulations that required a seat to be purchased for children over 2 years old, but it seemed like a revenue enhancement meausure to us. We were later able to get our pediatrician's office to fax us her immunization records, so the problem never came up again.

That experience behind us, we were treated to exceptional service by the flight attendants on all of our flights. To our shock, they actually seemed to care about their customers, even showing us extra consideration as we were traveling with an infant.

On each flight we were warned repeatedly that the flight was full, yet on each occasion we were able to have a whole row of three seats for my wife and I as well as our "lap child". My only complaint would be that Southwest mimics the practice of most other airlines in this country of leaving the seat belt sign on for most of the flight. They announce it is for safety as they are expecting turbulence, even when a half an hour goes by without so much as a jiggle. Throughout the whole time, flight attendants are walking about, apparently immune to the laws of physics.

That said, every flight departed and arrived on time. We actually chose a flight from Denver to Ft. Lauderdale that stopped in New Orleans. They offered a non-stop flight, but the price was $80 greater. The quick stop, with no change of plane, was easily worth the $160 saved.

Another great benefit of flying Southwest is their "no fees" policy. There are no telephone booking fees, no fuel surcharges, no curb checking fees, and each passenger gets two free checked bags. I used to travel alone for business, and I rarely checked a bag. Now, it is an absolute pleasure to be able to travel with a child without worrying about the cost of checking luggage. On each flight, our luggage was promptly delivered intact.

Every now and then, I hear someone attempt to justify their company's stupid policies by explaining that they do it their way because other companies in their industry do it that way too. I have also heard people explain weird practices by saying that if there was a better way, someone would have figured it out by now. After flying Southwest, I now see that 1) not every airline is run by idiots, and 2) Southwest has already figured out how to do it better.

So whenever your travel plans call for air travel, consider Southwest. They provide excellent service to every major city in the United States not named Atlanta.

1 comment:

Eric Meadows said...

Oh man. I am so sorry I forgot to get you and the family checked in during your trip.

I had a MAJOR brain fart due to family in town and offer my sincere apology.