This should be a fun comments section… Any time I write about Southwest, I am inundated with customers who defend their brand. But many are factually incorrect. Is it that they are misinformed or simply unaware of how Southwest Airlines compares to other carriers?
Yes, yes, “Bags Fly Free”
Customers place a disproportionate amount of value on their bags. It’s true, the first two checked pieces fly free on Southwest and it’s also true that other carriers charge between $30-40 for each of those two pieces. However, how many travelers check two bags on every flight? Further, how many of those could have packed in a carry-on instead of checking one of those bags but didn’t solely because it was free?
One reader reached out and said that two free checked bags represents $200 in value on every trip they take. I can’t make that math work, and while this reader flies purely for leisure, most business travelers wouldn’t check a bag regardless of cost due to both lack of need and gumption.
Yes, they are free but they don’t add as much value as some flyers might think. and don’t necessarily overcome the Southwest premium on tickets. Additionally, it’s possible that I am so far removed from the general (non-miles/points) flying public that I simply don’t realize that Southwest flyers are checking two full bags for every member of their party. If a family of four takes a trip for a week to Disney, are they really checking (8) 50 lb bags with carry-ons too? If not, as I suspect, then the premium price for Southwest tickets applies to all flyers but the applicable benefits only apply to some of the travelers.
No Change Fees Doesn’t Mean Free Changes
One commenter wrote in that they would change their airfare at the airport and on the fly leaving Co-workers in the dust when meetings finished early. No, they didn’t – at least it’s really unlikely that happened. Why? Because unless they bought their flight that morning, the fare would have changed.
When Southwest says, “No Change Fees” that means that Southwest will allow travelers to change or cancel their flight without adding change or cancellation fees. In the case of a cancellation, the funds stay with Southwest as a store credit. So far, so good, they live up to their claim.
However, the difference in fare is still the responsibility of the customer in the event of a change. Many commenters have discussed how great the deals are on Southwest, snagging the $50 and $100 tickets that made their airline famous. But when you examine close-in bookings, Southwest is just as expensive if not more so than the other airlines. So while there is no insult to injury in an added change fee like the other carriers, there is still an increase in the cost of a ticket, in many cases 4-8x the price paid and often more expensive than a ticket on another airline. That makes it more expensive than some think. It also makes it impossible to leave your co-workers in the dust while you jump on an earlier flight for free. It also speaks to a lack of knowledge about the other carriers (below.)
Every Seat is Essentially As Bad As Any Economy Seat
Southwest used to have an amazing 34” of seat pitch, which I personally loved over the years, that distance has shrunk to just 31-32”. Other carriers offer 29-32” in standard economy but also offer additional legroom seats other than just the bulkhead and exit rows like American’s Main Cabin Extra or United’s Economy Plus which offer between 34-36″ of seat pitch. Standard seat pitch at American is 31″, Alaska 31-32″ like Southwest, United, and Delta at 30-32″ – JetBlue leads the field at 34″ standard.
Why is this important? Because some business flyers believe they are still getting more space which used to be true. The fact of the matter is they are getting less, and if they fly enough to have A-level status with Southwest, they would have access to seats that give them more space, for free, on other carriers.
They Don’t Understand The Benefits at Other Carriers
Many Southwest flyers, especially business loyalists, left the other carriers so long ago that they don’t know about the benefits at American, United, and Delta. For example Delta, United and American open their flights to change on the same day for $75 to any guest, elites at the mid-tier or above universally pay nothing to change to another flight on the same day. Southwest offers same-day changes for free to status holders but unavailable to any other passenger.
Southwest business customers that flew American, Delta or United before they opened upgrades to all classes are passing up more space and better service opportunities.
Some Southwest customers love that they can always find an award seat on Southwest flights and this has been the case for many years. However, there is a mountain-sized asterisk with that statement. That’s just to say that there is a seat available, but the other carriers typically will give you an award seat as well, just not at the lowest level. They issue variably priced awards just like Southwest does so you too can get access to those seats, just not for saver level prices.
Irrational Exuberance/Ignoring Limitations
Southwest customers LUV their airline. Some love it so much that they don’t carefully evaluate the full breadth of available options. I recently wrote about how I don’t even shop Southwest for business trips because I forget they are there (not on the OTAs so they don’t factor into my price/schedule comparisons.) Likewise, I don’t think many Southwest customers are shopping outside of the airline and don’t realize what life is like outside the carrier.
Give credit to the Southwest marketing machine that converted the airline from a Low Cost Carrier to a value carrier – one that doesn’t nickel and dime their customers while the rest do. What their customers failed to notice is that they are missing out on other benefits that come with flying the flag carriers while the Southwest prices have crept ever further north.
Many fans of Southwest also forget other destinations. Not everyone has a desire to leave the continent, but some do if even just occasionally. With Southwest, that’s not an option. Flying a moderate amount of trips on American or United would earn enough for a trip to northern South America or Europe. I just spoke with a friend, one such Southwest super fan, that is paying out of pocket for a trip to Ireland next year. They spend enough money on Southwest flights and the credit card that they maintain Companion Pass without the sign up bonuses and yet, even the super fans have a desire to go some place outside the Southwest network but of course can’t use their points for such. With that amount of business, any other carrier would have gotten them there on points, perhaps in lie flat business class.
Additionally, the lack of Southwest partners limits Southwest customers to just Southwest destinations even within the caribbean. While United members could utilize Avianca or Copa to get almost anywhere in the caribbean or Central America and Delta members could utilize Aeromexico, Southwest customers have a choice of less than ten cities, if not they have to fly with another carrier. That may seem fine until a wedding pops up that requires another destination outside of Southwest’s network.
I don’t hate Southwest, I actually rather like the airline – my wife has Companion Pass and we are flying them next week. But we know that we are flying them for specific reasons, we aren’t blinded by the free bag benefits. Some of their customers should realize that they are leaving a lot on the table for a benefit that they may or may not fully utilize and are likely paying a premium to receive.
What do you think? Are you a Southwest enthusiast that thinks I am wrong? Do you agree with my assessments?