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Southwest Airlines: Little Guys Doing It Better

Southwest Airlines takes delivery of its first 737-800 with SpliAs Editor of realfoodtraveler.com and a fulltime travel and food writer, I fly a lot. Usually, I fly the larger airlines—Delta, United, Air Canada. While many individual airline staff are often caring and go out of their way to make flying a positive experience, certainly not all of them do and I’m frequently left with the feeling from the big airlines “we don’t care; we don’t have to.” Not so with Southwest Airlines.

I don’t often have the opportunity to fly this smaller, regional airline. However, I recently flew Southwest Airlines roundtrip from Portland, Oregon, to Omaha, Nebraska, and the experience has me believing this airline has something to teach the big airlines about caring and treating customers right.

No Assigned Seats, Free Bag Check

Southwest, one of the so-called “budget” airlines, has always done things a little differently. For one thing, they don’t assign seats. Passengers are given the opportunity to check in 24-hours in advance and are assigned a letter and number. (A limited number can pay a small fee to get an early number.) At each gate, there are signs showing customers where to line up to board by letter and number. It’s an amazingly efficient process and passengers board quickly. Onboard, everyone simply finds an open seat. Sure, this means you may not get to sit with your loved ones, but, for the most part, it seems to work out fine. On four different flights, I got an aisle seat just the way I like it.

Cruise, luggage, travel advice

Unlike many airlines, Southwest allows passengers two free checked bags.

One of the reasons Southwest’s open seating program works so efficiently is they allow passengers to check two bags for free (third bag costs $75). So instead of everyone trying to cram too many rollaboards into the bins, most people check their bags. In an era when nearly all airlines charge for every checked bag and make millions on baggage fees, Southwest’s free-check policy is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Despite offering some of the lowest fares in the industry, Southwest airlines still offers its passengers free non-alcoholic drinks and snacks. Okay, the snacks are just peanuts, crackers, and pretzels, but, hey, when was the last time a big airline offered you so much as a single peanut for free? Nope. They’re too busy peddling ridiculously priced “snack packs” and forcing their flight attendants to endless walk up and down the aisles pushing fee-based airline credit cards to customers.

Real Caring

Regional carriers like Southwest seem to work harder to serve their customers.

Regional carriers like Southwest seem to work harder to serve their customers.

Perhaps most importantly is how differently Southwest Airlines staff treats its guests. They have posters in some of the terminals that state “All airline employees have attitude. Our’s have the right attitude.” And that’s true. The ticket agents and onboard staff consistently said thanks and treated everyone with respect, truly recognizing that by choosing to fly with them passengers enable them to stay employed.

Here’s just one example of the SWA attitude. All the flights I took on SW were booked solid, every seat sold. Maybe because it was the holidays or because Southwest fares are more affordable, there were lots of families with babies and little kids. Anyone who’s flown with children knows it’s challenging and any passenger who’s had to fly with a crying child knows it’s irritating.

On my Denver-Portland leg, a young mother with three children boarded the plane. At one point, her toddler pitched a fit. This wasn’t just a brief cry, but loud, inconsolable wailing. No matter what the mother did, she couldn’t get her little boy to quiet down. One of the Southwest flight attendants hustled to the back of the plane. The next thing we knew, she had the little one in her arms. From the way she carried and coddled the boy, it was obvious she has experience with unhappy babies. She walked the aisle with him, bouncing him and talking softly. Within a few moments, the child quieted and the attendant returned the boy to his mom. The entire time the Southwest staffer smiled, never looking frazzled or irritated. She did what a good airline employee should: go out of her way to provide customer service and help make everyone’s flight better.

If Southwest Airlines can offer free checked bags, drinks and snacks and lower fares, why can't the big airlines?

If Southwest Airlines can offer free checked bags, drinks and snacks and lower fares, why can’t the big airlines?

Airlines like Southwest have something to teach the big airlines: treat your customers right. Recognize that customers have a choice of who to fly.

Southwest Airlines does and, in the future, I’ll go out of my way to fly them whenever I can. – Bobbie Hasselbring, Editor realfoodtraveler.com

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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at realfoodtraveler.com.