Header image

For those of us who take flights within the continental US on any regular basis, our first thought is most likely to check Southwest’s rates. Why? Because Southwest Airlines is the only major “Low-Cost Airline,” and has been since the 1970s. However, one might notice in recent years a lot of new, relatively small, and competitively low-cost airlines popping up elsewhere. Many of these are branches of the major airlines, for example Express Jet is a branch of Continental and Ted is a branch of United.

Recently my family and I flew to Ontario, CA (just outside LA) on Express Jet. My ticket was one-way, $109.00. Not bad at all. Once settled in at my Uncle Tom’s home in Norco, CA, with much of my extended family, I began questioning my Uncle Craig about these airlines, because he is a pilot for Southwest. (I am fascinated by airplanes in general, but also how it all works together for such efficient travel, so I’m constantly giving him twenty questions about his job!) Craig suggested that all of those little airlines are really a pain for Southwest, and additionally are not as efficient for their customers.

He told me that, for all of these years since commercial air travel became deregulated, Southwest has been the only low-cost airline among the “Legacy” airlines, (“legacy” referring to all the major ones that we could all list, such as United, American, USAir, Continental, etc.). Also, Southwest has been the ONLY Legacy airline that has consistently made a profit. The only one—isn’t that insane? He tells me that this is based on Southwest’s efficiency—they get you there on time or faster, they have wonderful employees that work really hard, and some of them work for less than another legacy airline would pay (hence the ability to profit). But because the company is so well run, and seemingly such a joy to be a part of, employees stay with them for years and years, unionize effectively, and run a great company.

So, what are these other legacy airlines to do? They’re not making any money (you may be used to constantly hearing in the news about major airlines going bankrupt, and then the US government bailing them out,) and they’re getting smoked by Southwest’s lower prices and higher efficiency. So—they all decide to make their own low-cost airlines. They buy a fleet of tiny little planes, and charge a lot less for their flights. Sounds like a great deal, but guess what happens because of this—all these new airlines with their slow little planes clog the skyways. Fact: a 737 (100% of Southwest’s fleet are 737s) is faster than the smaller, sleeker looking planes that these other low-cost airlines fly (such as Express Jet's Embraer ERJ 145) . So—when an Express Jet flight leaves from Kansas City for Los Angeles at 10am, and a Southwest flight leaves for the same at 10:30am, it won’t be long before the 737 catches up with the little guy. But because of the dynamics of air flight and of the air-highway system, seldom to never is the Southwest jet able to pass the Express jet. Consequently, Southwest is slowed down and their great reputation for efficiency is forced to slow as well. For pilots, my uncle says, this is one of the most frustrating things there is to deal with.

Finally, in my experience it is true that Southwest’s employees—ticketing agents, flight attendants, and pilots alike--are the friendliest people in the U.S. airline industry. I’ve never once been frustrated. Even when I’m able to fly standby on passes my uncle provides (and so I am not paying SW anything to fly) they will go out of their way to assist me and get me where I need to go.

So in all our efforts to do better in our economic and social lives, let us not overlook our travel options. My choice of airline wasn’t something I’ve ever thought about when considering my economic decisions and how they harm or benefit the society I live in. But after hearing Craig humbly explain all of this to me, I think I’ll always choose Southwest over any new branch of low-cost airlines. And at the very least, they’re the only airline that still offers honey-roasted peanuts. I can never eat plain peanuts again. Too bad they don’t have flights to Hong Kong or Africa. Yet.

Props to my Uncle Craig for being “the cool uncle” because he’s the youngest of the uncles, used to fly fighter jets, and gives us free plane tickets. Don’t tell those other guys I said that.


toby said...

Our dollar is our vote. Quality, Ease, and Low price--choose two. Quality is going out the window.

aaron said...

As far as the clogging up the airlines SW can also be contributing to that in a different way. Airlines over book so they can always assure full flights. And because there is no regulations in the sky ways they can book as many flights as they want without regards to the cost of the airports (which is a lot).

This has lead to booking more flights (because they are trying to meet the customers (us) demand of needing more options in flight times) than the runways and time slots can hold. Which has led to an all time high in canceled and delayed flights. The highest percentage of these happening in Laguardia (NYC).

So while I agree with the slow plane verses fast plane. I'm not convinced it's the moral or responsible choice to fly SW based on efficiency alone.

I will say that the service is fun though, I like it when the pilots make jokes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this; definitely an interesting read!

I don't know if you've heard of it, but there's a another low-cost airline that my wife and I have started to take a liking to; Skybus. Granted we actually have a reason to fly to Columbus (which, for now, is the only place Skybus flies to out of KC).... It is the closest thing (serving KC at least)to Europe's Easyjet, which for me, sets the standard for low-cost airlines.

There is a lot more convenience in flying Southwest (SW Rewards, multiple offerings each day and more destinations), but outside of Arizona, Skybus will get us where we want to go and do it for cheaper than Southwest about 9 out of 10 times--and I'm all about budget travel.

I'm anxious to see how Skybus will stack up to Southwest as the company grows, runs more flights and opens more hubs (right now all but two routes either originate or terminate in Columbus, OH). I don't think it's for everyone, at least not yet, but if they continue to grow, I can see Skybus really putting the hurt on Southwest--they are being built on a model* that Southwest won't be able to compete with price-wise.

Anyway, just my 2 cents.

*Model is ultra-low overhead...some particulars:
::First 10 tickets on each flight $10
::P/T flight attendants
::P/T ticketing agents (at airport)
::Customer support only avail. through email
::Ticket booking only available through internet
::Only operates to and from less-trafficked airports to stay on-time
::Charge for food/drink and checked baggage
::Only fly 737s [and many are new-(and pretty nice!)]

Anonymous said...

As a current airline employee (not with Southwest, but with another legacy carrier), I want to clarify a few things. Before i start, I will say though that Southwest airlines does do a very good job at what they do.

Expressjet is not owned by Continental. Expressjet contracts to Continental, and now they operate under their own brand. Skywest is similar, in that they contract to United & Midwest, but they operate their own branded flights as well (out of DEN). ComAir, Mesa, Air Wisconsin, Shuttle America, and GoJet are other examples of the same thing.

The maximum speed difference between the fastest 737 and an ERJ-145 (what ExpressJet & some others fly) is 0.04 mach, or ~34 miles per hour. Cruising speed is usually not that much slower than maximum speed, and the difference isn't that great.

United is about the only airline that owns their "discount" section of their airline. Ted flies only Airbus 320's, which are actually larger than Southwest's 737's.

With that being said, I've been extremely spoiled in that I get to fly first class for free. If I was paying for a ticket, I would strongly consider Southwest based solely on price. Flying is generally a less-than-ideal experience, and I'd rather not pay more for misery than I need to.

mishl said...

I'll never forget when the stewardesses sang to us on one Southwest flight. And I hear that they have one employee whose full time job is caring for employee quality-of-life type stuff, including sending birthday cards and collecting pictures of employees with their dogs, etc. I can really get behind that.

KIRBY said...

I've been flying SW since 1998, and they are always the first airline I check prices for, (especially since they're not on Orbitz or Kayak.) They allow you to change flights without paying the $100 change fee that others charge (I've done this twice), and (I haven't done this yet), but I believe that you can cancel your entire flight and use the money for a future flight sometime in the next year.

Too bad they don't fly to Alaska, (so I can visit my sister.) (Alaska Air is another airline making money.) They finally made it back to Denver though...

louann said...

i was on Maureen's XJet flight to Calif. We took XJet because of the direct flight mostly. The cost was close to SW, but the stopover and plane change required with SW was the deciding factor. Craig (the uncle) had said that part of XJets low overhead is that most employes are very young and/or inexperienced. I poo-poo'd that comment. But then, here's what happened. On our return flight, it turned out not to be direct. We stopped in Tucson - didn't have to disembark, but did have a change in passengers. The problem was that the gate agent issued too many boarding passes, and there were more people on the plane than seats. As a result, they had to go row to row checking names off the manifest to find the folks that had to get off, and we were late. the gate agent was a little red faced (he was also on the plane assisting in that endeavor). so, you were right craig. In all my years flying SW, i've never had THAT happen!
p.s. Express Jet previously operated as Continental Express.

Uncle Craig - never a fighter pilot... said...

There are systemic problems that are a big concern for all the airlines. One is with the Air Traffic Control system. The system is mind boggling in its complexity, and there are centers that still use computers with tubes in them. It is not uncommon for a communication failure to shut down a center, which rapidly snowballs across the country. The proper fix would realistically take 12-15 years to complete and cost 10s of billions of dollars, which no one is very willing to pay. Some say tax the airlines more, but few realize that well over 50% of your seat price at a Low Cost Carrier (LCC) already pays for some kind of tax. It’s similar at a legacy carrier, but I just don’t know the percentage. People are willing to pay only X amount to fly and if the ticket cost any more, they will either drive or simply won’t go.
Airlines have some of the highest fixed costs of any industry and they have an army of very smart people with very fast computers that try and squeak a little revenue anywhere they can. Last quarter was a good one for SWA as we made a little over $4.00 per passenger. Not much when you consider the billions it takes operate.

The discussion about 737 speeds vs. regional jet (RJs) speeds is accurate, but the example with the timing (30 minutes between departures) may be a little exaggerated. Someone commented about the speed difference being only about 34 miles an hour, but another factor is climb rate. First of all, 34 mph is significant, especially over large distances.
Since runways can only have one aircraft on them at a time, the system generally plans one departure or arrival per runway per minute. If the weather is not good, the spacing needs to be increased because the pilots and tower controllers cannot guarantee visual separation between aircraft. If the weather requires, or is forecast to require the increased separation then the master blaster computers at the FAA slow down the takeoffs and meter the aircraft, hence the infamous gate holds and ground stops. They also adjust the speeds and routes of the aircraft already airborne to efficiently funnel the aircraft from all over the country to the runway, one minute apart. If I’m flying to LAX and a regional jet is flying to another LA basin airport (doesn’t even have to be LAX) and I’m slowed down for him, I lose my slot, and the controllers have to find me another one. If it is a three-hour flight, and I have to slow down 34 mph, I’m 102ish miles behind where the system built a slot for me. The same is true for the aircraft behind me and the one behind him and the one behind him, etc. It also applies, albeit to a lesser extent, if for example I am flying from NY to AZ and I get stuck behind a slower aircraft going from Philly to St. Louis.
Also, a 737 climbs about twice as fast as an RJ. The controllers have to stager aircraft climbing so the one behind doesn’t out climb and pass the preceding aircraft. So larger jets are often held down to wait for an RJ to climb to altitude. Since jets are far more efficient in the cold air at high altitude, by having to stay lower longer increases our fuel burn. Doesn’t sound like much at first glance, but with over 3300 flights a day just at SWA and fuel just peaking at 90 bucks a barrel, we’re talking millions of dollars over the course of a year.
Now, I don’t mean to slam RJ’s, because they are much more popular than turboprops, and I know there is a place for them in smaller markets. I also don’t claim that this happens on every flight, but, the system is getting clogged up with airplanes and unfortunately it is only going to get worse as hundreds of micro-jets are delivered.
As far as the other LCCs go (Jet Blue, Skybus, and all the overseas LCCs), they are all modeled after SWA, and most have actually recruited SWA management. It’s such a cutthroat industry though; it’s nearly impossible for anyone to make a profit, which usually doesn’t bode well for start up airlines. I think the bottom line is that if there were no LCCs and limited competition, no one could afford to fly.
I’ve rambled enough… but it’s something close to home.

Maureen said...

Uncle Craig is the biizzzzzz.

Anonymous said...

Maureen, why are you sucking up to Uncle Craig? He wasn't a fighter pilot but... he did start out as enlisted in the Air Force working as the Boom operator on refuler aircraft, then went on to be a Officer-pilot on the refulers. I do have alot of admiration for him since he obviously has to be pretty darn intelligent but is still a great down to earth guy. Very proud to say he is one of my wonderful brothers. Aunt Katy

Maureen said...

Oh, you know, just trying to get deemed "the coolest niece" or something like that..maybe even "favorite niece" if I'm really lucky. Don't tell Sarah.

Anonymous said...

that explains everything! I love you, Aunt Katy

Anonymous said...

I have flown on Southwest and on XJet and I would fly XJet 10 time out of 10 in the future. They are a classy, quality airline for the amount of money you pay and there is nothing like drinking a couple of beers, 5 to be exact, for 5 dollars total. Yep, they have dollar beers. Put my vote and my business partners vote in for XJet.