Friday, July 1, 2011

Review of Southwest Airlines

Earlier this week I flew Southwest for the first time on my return flight to Charleston, South Carolina from Buffalo, New York, so I thought I would write up a review.

Purchasing Experience

First and foremost, the online purchasing experience is smooth and relatively painless; the only challenge is that Southwest does not use online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Travelocity or Expedia, so it is a little harder to directly compare prices.   I understand why they do this from a business perspective (it does keep control and costs down) but if all of the airlines decided to go this route, shopping for travel products would become much more stressful.  It was a pain in butt to have to keep switching windows to see times and prices.  I will admit though, Southwest's prices remained relatively stable within the purchasing window of a few weeks.  This is a good strategy in that one hates when you paid $250.00 for a ticket and the person next to you paid $100.00 for the exact same product (they just happened to pick the right moment to purchase).  I understand revenue optimization strategies, but the variance should be not so much that the consumer feels 'ripped off.'

After purchasing the ticket, the company sends an electronic receipt that is understandable.  One issue was that the receipt goes onto two pages because of their banner ads etc.  To business travelers who have to  submit the receipt, it is a bit of a pain in the butt (though admittedly not a huge deal).  Also, the design of the receipt makes it harder to read on mobile devices.  Yes, your receipt is pretty, but functional works too - it is an official receipt.  Southwest also sent me two further emails, one reminding me my flight was upcoming and another stating the regulations and the procedures for printing out ones boarding pass.  These are nice additions and for those not used to flying, a really nice preparation tool.

Airport/Boarding Procedures

Upon arrival at the airport, the check-in procedures are smooth.  The self check-in system works and is efficient (for my views on airports in general please see this post).  The desk staff at the gates and generally friendly and helpful.  As I had a connection, I asked what gate the connector flight was at so I would know upon arrival and the desk staff looked it up for me and assured me it was currently showing as being on-time. Further, the desk staff worked efficiently to keep consumers informed as to the progress of their flights.  The flight at the gate beside me was going to be 15 minutes delayed but the desk staff assured the passengers that this particular flight in usually made up time and that the flight was likely to revert to being on-time (which it did).  The only problem I had with a desk staff person, was a rude desk person in Baltimore.  As my flight from Buffalo arrived at 6:35ish and my flight to Charleston was leaving at 7:10, I hurried to the 2nd gate knowing that they were probably going to be boarding soon.  I got the gate and asked a question to the attendant about when they expected to board (to determine if I have enough time to go to the bathroom) and she looked at me and said, 'you people really have to learn to listen.'  I then told her I had just gotten off the flight from Buffalo and she then said sorry and told me I had about ten minutes.

One of the things I really do not like about Southwest is the boarding procedures.  On a Southwest flight customers board according to letter and number.  I will state up front that their system works and that as a result it allows for planes to be boarded smoothly and quickly.  The problem I have is that is really makes you feel like being loaded into a cattle car.  Further, a family showed up late for the first flight and the attendants had to beg passengers to change seats so that they could sit together.  The poor mom who was travelling with two small children looked exacerbated and the additional stress on having to be stood up in front of the plane and begged for to have seats with her children was a problem that could have been easily avoided (and to be fair - this situation would have been avoided if she were on-time).

Flight Experience

This is where my experience with Southwest excelled.  The flight attendant staff was very personable and professional.  When comparing to other airlines, the flight attendant staff was extraordinary.  In every instance during my experience, when someone asked them for help, they did so with a smile and grace.  Their approach to going over the safety regulations is ingenious.  They have turned it into basically a comedy sketch.  The not so funny part being that on most flights I have been on, no one pays attention to the safety speech, but on this flight, every ones eyes were up and paying attention because the attendant presented it in a way that was humorous.  I am still trying to reconcile in my brain whether this is a sad commentary on American society or not.  Either way, Southwests system worked in getting people to pay attention.

I have to say the line of the day went to the attendant who was describing the fine for disabling the smoke detector in the washroom as being a $2000.00 fine.  She quipped, "If you wanted to spend $2000.00 on a flight, you would be flying Delta at the moment."  It was a priceless dig at the competition and a nice reminder of the 'value' of the Southwest ticket price.

The service during the flight was good and the attendants were very efficient in their duties.  What impressed me most, that while they are extremely busy (my first flight was 100% capacity and only had an hour and a bit in the air) they never let on that a customer was slowing them down.  They gave the impression that they were having a good day and that they liked what they are doing.  It was an impressive display of customer service that both the staff and management team should be proud of.  It demonstrated that good systems combined with competent people make for an efficient and effective experience that is not necessarily overly stressful on the consumer or the staff thus creating a positive environment for all.


In retrospect, other than one small hiccup, the Southwest experience was a good one.  I believe that the overall experience provided good value for dollar.  At all times, I felt comfortable and safe on their flights.  I felt that that majority of staff were happy to be at work and that they were given the tools to adequately do their jobs.   Overall, this was the most positive experience I have had with a USA airline in a long time.

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