Innovative airlines 2011: #6 Southwest Airlines

At number 6 is Southwest Airlines (airline code: LUV), which carries more domestic passengers than any other airline in the U.S, and has evolved from a quirky regional airline to a national powerhouse without losing its startup, fun culture. Southwest is widely regarded as one of the most customer-centric airlines in the industry, encouraging its employees to make a difference. Southwest President Colleen Barrett describes a Southwest employee as someone “who dares to make mistakes; dares to be different; finds a way to utilize people’s special talents; and lives a little on the edge” (witness the Southwest pilot who recently held his plane so a passenger on his way to a funeral could make it, or the airline’s famous rapping flight attendant David Holmes).

LUV
Southwest is one of the very few U.S. airlines to go against the industry trend of charging for an increasing number of amenities. For example, the airline is the only major U.S. carrier that doesn’t charge to check a first and second bag which, according to a spokeswoman, is now among the top five reasons for customers to choose Southwest. Using its most visible assets as billboards, the airline put a ‘Free Bags Fly Here’ slogan on more than 50 aircraft with an arrow pointing to the cargo bin and tagged 1,000 luggage carts across its network with banners that say “I Carry Free Bags.”

Southwest also offers passengers that happen to be onboard during specific festivities an alcoholic beverage from the in-flight menu ‘on the house’. For example, in May 2010, Southwest offered Moms a free drink of their choice on Mothers Day, while service personal with military ID received a complimentary drink on Memorial Day.

As part of Southwest’s philosophy to give back to society, the airline’s ‘Share the Spirit’ program encourages employees to embrace local charities and nonprofits in destinations across its network. To pay tribute to its employee volunteers, Southwest in 2010 introduced ‘Tickets for Time’ which, for every 40 hours a Southwest volunteer dedicates to an organization, provides one complimentary roundtrip ticket on Southwest for fund-raising or transportation needs.

‘Dedicated to Denver
An excellent example of Southwest’s ‘LUV’ philosophy is its recent ‘Dedicated to Denver’ campaign. As part of the airline’s push to become the unofficial ‘homecarrier’ of the city, Southwest in July 2010 launched a promotion that starred its local employees in ads and offered Denver residents free services such as complimentary pedicab rides across town. In September 2010, Southwest also opened ‘The Southwest Porch at Skyline Park,’ an year-round outdoor lounge (inspired by a similar Southwest café at New York’s Bryant Park) where Denverites can relax and enjoy food and drinks from local suppliers. The airline recently opened a free skating rink next to the ‘porch’ venue as well.

Business travellers
To attract more business travellers, Southwest has launched a raft of measures, including a ‘Business Select’ fare (which includes access to priority lanes) and inflight WiFi. 54 Southwest aircraft have currently been WiFi-equipped and installation on the airline’s 540-strong fleet will be completed by 2013. A planned takeover of AirTran will give Southwest access to 37 new markets (most notably Delta’s Atlanta home-base) and expand its exposure in business-traveller markets New York and Boston.

In what it described as the “single biggest new product launch” in its 40-year history, Southwest has also just revamped its frequent flyer program particularly aimed at attracting business passengers. Reward points will now be based on the ticket cost rather than miles flown, and a new level in the program, A-List Preferred, can be earned by road warriors who log 50 flights or earn 70,000 points in a year and includes perks such as free in-flight WiFi.

‘Green Plane’
A final initiative worth mentioning is Southwest’s ‘Green Plane,’ a 4-year old Boeing 737-700 that serves as a test-aircraft for eco-friendly cabin materials that are recyclable and lighter weight, saving up to five pounds per seat.

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