Southwest Airlines was one of the carriers that established the idea that anyone could fly, that you didnít have to be well off or rich to get on a plane to visit grandmotherís house or go on vacation. Those days are long gone. While there are still lower fares available on Southwest, they are harder and harder to find and difficult to book. For years now, Iíve checked Southwest and wound up booking through Expedia because I can get lower fares or better flights, sometimes both. The story today (6.2.11) in the Wall Street Journal questioning whether Southwest is still a discount carrier is far behind the curve.
To my analysis, Southwest established the idea with many fliers, those who only fly, at most, two or three times a year, that they are the very best at discounting and that idea has stuck, even while Southwestís actual fares have gone up. If you think you are always getting a deal, maybe you donít even check other airlines. It is not unlike Wal-Mart or some other big retailer posting cheap, cheap prices and then putting higher prices on some items. Since people are conditioned to believe that they can get the lowest prices at a given store, they donít comparison shop to make certain this is true.
Wal-Mart, for example, often sells inferior goods a lower prices or forces the buyer to take a larger quantity. One example: for the longest time, once they started carrying flat screen televisions, Wal-Mart did not sell 1080p sets (the highest resolution), but posted low prices for 720p, fooling the customers into thinking they were getting true hi-def at a really good prices. Most customers, of course, donít really know much about the technical aspects, so they go home happy, thinking theyíve just saved two to three hundred dollars on an HD set when they havenít gotten true HD. Fooling the public is the norm these days in retailing, but Wal-Mart uses the faith of their customers in low prices to make more money for themselves.
Southwest also has come-on sales that advertise really low one way prices, but when I go to their site, I canít find that lowest fare. I do see fares one and two steps above, but I was drawn to the site because I thought I might be able to get the real deal. No matter whether I search three, four or more times on various dates, I canít find that low fare. Do the fares evaporate in ten minutes? How many seats are actually being sold at that low price?
I like flying on Southwest compared to other airlines and I do it when it makes sense for me on a business trip, but I donít consider them the ďgo-toĒ airline. Not at all. Over the last six or seven years, I have usually been able to find lower fares elsewhere. I am an assiduous searcher for fares and better flights and seats. This stems from my use of the old OAG in the days before the Internet and from being disappointed repeatedly when a travel agent put me on a flight, like one leaving in the early morning hours, that I didnít appreciate.
Whatís more, on one occasion when I flew Southwest to the west coast, because there was no apparent ability to cross check names and fares, I was marked for extra treatment at security because I had bought a one way fare out and a one way fare back (they couldnít check my name through the system?) Believe me, this is a significant penalty. While it probably had nothing to do with Southwest, the whole experience was so terrible that I once bought my daughter a round trip ticket from Atlanta, when she only needed a one way, so that she would not have to go through extra screening. (That extra treatment that I received years ago is now available to anyone randomly selected at an airport near you.)
To me, Southwest only makes sense any more if I can get a flight I want to someplace under served by other airlines, like Austin or El Paso or Islip on Long Island. The new service into Newark might be a good deal for me, too. The days when Southwest was the fare leader are, as far as I can tell, long gone. They are flying on their reputation as a low cost carrier and are making a good profit because of it. Thatís great for them and their stock holders. Southwest has moved to become more of a business personís airline, figuring theyíve gotten all the bump they could get as a leisure travelerís delight. Business people are willing to pay more, in general, and they expect better treatment. Or at least hope for it.
I am still waiting for some new system, something beyond airline travel, to come along that makes the rude, unhappy experience of flying, which is normal on most airlines, a thing of the past. I like the idea of shooting large capsules with seating for passengers through vacuum tubes or some other variation. Lots of work to be done, but something new will, someday, come along.
Doug Terry, 6.2.11