Congratulations to all the great people at Southwest for a well-deserved win. Southwest has steadily advanced in the rankings by mostly holding the line against the industry's continued devaluation of both loyalty programs and the travel experience. Yes, Southwest squeezed in an extra row of seats, but other airlines have squeezed us even more. Rapid Rewards redemption devalued from 60 points per dollar to 70 and then 72, but that's peanuts compared to what other airlines have done. Premium class award levels have nearly doubled, not that Saver awards are available anyway. Southwest has quietly improved its A-List benefits, most notably allowing free standby on any earlier flight the same day. That has proved immensely more useful than I had expected. The WiFi is working better and better, and other aspects of the operation which were good remain so. In short, it ain't broke, so don't fix it. Just let the others continue to break their programs and welcome their former customers to Rapid Rewards!
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Examples of low Ding fares? See http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=624311 and http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=684468
The last two weekends have had some phenomenal $25 and $50 fares for May and June travel.
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I'd like to thank Bill for his openness with us and for so politely handling the inevitable catcalls. This degree of frankness from a large corporation is quite rare, and it deserves to be rewarded.
Please consider casting a vote for Southwest in the Freddie Awards at http://freddieawards.com/
blogsouthwest.com is a major part of why I believe Southwest deserves to win the Best Newsletter/Member Communications, Best Web Site, and Best Customer Service awards. Another is that Southwest has an official representative assigned to flyertalk.com's Southwest forum, which I moderate. I can count the companies that have earned this much loyalty from me on one hand, with fingers left over.
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Why does Southwest have this policy on Customers of Size? It's simple. They get something like 10 as many complaint letters from people who sat next to Customers of Size as they get from the Customers of Size who are charged for the second seat. Southwest exists to serve ALL its customers, not just the larger ones. The 98%+ of customers who occupy only one seat expect to have full use of the seat they pay for.
In my experience in over 400 flights as a customer, less than 2% of passengers, and probably less than 1%, require a second seat. It makes no business sense to incur huge costs to resize seats for such a small percentage of passengers when Southwest's current policy lets everyone travel in comfort.
Furthermore, Southwest absorbs the extra cost in almost all cases. People have posted at flyertalk that they have paid for the extra seat hundreds of times and never failed to get a refund. This policy is clearly losing money for Southwest due to the expenditure of employee time and processing costs.
Southwest may be alone in making its policy public, but other airlines have similar policies. They have to. The difference with Southwest is that you will get a refund almost every time. With the other airlines, you won't have to buy the second seat but you can be kicked off the flight if it's full.
Some larger folks believe that flying another airline will spare them from having their feelings hurt by being asked to buy a second seat when the flight is not full. That's understandable, but buying a second seat certainly beats being KICKED OFF THE FLIGHT by another airline because the flight is full and you don't fit in one seat.
Booking one seat when you need two is like going to a catered event with 137 people invited and eating two of the 137 meals. If everybody shows up, someone is not going to get a meal. Reserving one and consuming two is therefore inconsiderate.
People need to be mature and accept responsibility for mitigating the consequences of their limitations. Accordingly, Southwest asks Customers of Size to pro-actively purchase the second seat, ensuring that everyone will have a place to sit and nobody will be left behind.
Southwest's policy is completely reasonable and quite generous. Swallow your pride and be a good neighbor. Chances are that it won't even cost you any money.
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Southwest is well aware that its limited schedule horizon relative to competitors costs it some revenue. We can be sure that the cost and benefits are fully studied, so the typical limited horizon must save more money that it costs. Furthermore, Bill's optimized summer schedule probably also will save more than the revenue lost due to customer defections between now and February 8. Otherwise the plan to delay release a few weeks beyond the norm never would have been approved.
What Southwest is learning for the first time from this blog is that there is another cost, not so easily quantified: customer goodwill. That's why Southwest has apparently decided not to let anything close to the current shortage of bookable dates recur. Just my opinion as a long-time customer.
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If you're one of those people worrying about low-fare seats disappearing immediately after the schedule opens, relax. I've been right on top of every schedule extension for YEARS, and I'm here to tell you that I have not seen that happen since before 2004. These days Southwest errs on the side of stinginess when the schedule first opens. Availability may improve later, starting about 12 weeks out. I have not seen availability of discount fares tighten AT ALL in the first few days after the schedule opens.
Where does this perception come from? Simple. When you or I first check the new dates, some of the flights have no discounts available. Someone must have grabbed them already, right? Wrong. No discount seats were allocated for those flights. (Hint to Southwest: This deserves its own blog post if anyone in the revenue department is feeling brave enough to withstand some abuse.)
When Southwest allocates discount seats to a flight, it allocates plenty of them. The only way they will all disappear is when a group books a large fraction of the entire flight.
Other airlines don't operate this way. They allocate a token number of low-fare seats even to peak flights. With those airlines, it is indeed a race to book those deals before they're gone. With Southwest, you've lost that race before it starts. Your best hope is that bookings will lag and the revenue people will relent and allocate discount seats for your flight. As I said, that won't occur much earlier than 12 weeks out.
The above observations are from my personal experience, having purchased over 1000 flights online at southwest.com over the past decade or so.
As to Rapid Rewards bookings, that's a horse of a different color. For awards, you can forget everything I said about discount fares. Nobody has enough experience yet with how RR seats are allocated to draw firm conclusions, but all indications are that token award seat allocations are indeed present at the schedule release. Last year I saw two RR seats out of Orlando on December 21 (a blackout date for the old awards) when the schedule first opened. An hour later when southwest.com recovered from a partial crash, those seats were gone, and they never returned. Someone got them by phoning in a reservation.
Award holders have completely valid concerns about the schedule extension. This unfortunately goes hand in hand with capacity controls. For example, I set myalarm for the middle of the night four nights to nail down United Mileage Plus seats to Hawaii 331 days ahead of my trip. Frequent flier programs are a lot less fun when you have to jump through these hoops, but it seems to be the way of the world now. We may need to get into the habit of using Rapid Rewards tickets only for short-notice travel, ironically costing Southwest even more in lost revenue than when we used them for our family vacations planned far in advance.
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I can confidently state that fares have absolutely nothing to do with the schedule release. Southwest can and does change fares all the time. Furthermore, Southwest is much stingier than other airlines with deep discounts for peak flight times, even when the schedule first opens. In fact, especially when the schedule first opens.
Other airlines tend to offer their best prices far, far ahead, even on flights that are destined to sell out early. That's plane dumb, and Southwest doesn't do it. Southwest does a superb job of sizing the various discount buckets to demand, and I haven't seen a deep discount sell out quickly in years. They tend to stay available for months, precisely because Southwest does not offer the deepest discounts on peak flights.
On Southwest, the best time window to fish for a discount on a peak flight is 12 weeks to 8 weeks before the flight if seats aren't selling as well as expected. Go ahead and book that flight 4 or 5 months ahead. I always do, but I keep looking for lower fares. Since there are no change fees on Southwest, you can pocket the difference as a travel credit. For example last year I saved $30 when the fare dropped for the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, in this case 13 weeks before the travel date.
If you're looking for Rapid Rewards seats or planning a trip for which you need to compare Southwest fares to other airlines, then I fully understand the inconvenience. If you want to know what Southwest's fares are likely to be for a given market on a typical non-peak date, just go to http://flyertalk.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=501 and ask. Someone there will probably be able to give you a good estimate.
On the other hand, if you want to know whether Rapid Rewards seats wlil be available, capacity controls are new to everyone. The award availability outlook for peak flights (e.g., Friday and Sunday to and from Las Vegas and Orlando) is not great. Still, if you have a day or two of flexibility, Southwest award travel is far easier than hunting for saver award seats on other airlines. As an example of the latter, I was unable to book a saver award in November for a mid-January flight. Rapid Rewards seats were available for any date I wanted, but I bought the tickets for $85 each way to earn more credits.
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Anyone wanting a non-official guess about schedule extension can try these two links: http://flyertalk.com/forum/showpost.php?p=3943308&postcount=20 and http://flyertalk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=527240 (and skip to the most recent post).
Bill, I have one other question. Most schedule extensions happen shortly after 10 AM Central Time on Thursdays. What's magic about Thursday morning?
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I've long been curious as to why schedule extensions typically happen at 10 AM Central Time on Thursdays. Is there a meeting early Thursday when your management blesses your work and gives the OK to throw the switch?
People wanting advance notification of schedule extensions should install Ding, which will notify them immediately of the extension. My personal guess for the next extension is 10 AM Central Time on August 17, for travel through January 14 or so.
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The October 2004 changes were quite noticeable in the West Coast markets. Flights that had been uniformly spaced throughout the day became much better clustered around peak hours. I imagine that this was accomplished by linking these flights to long-haul east-west flights rather than simply bouncing aircraft up and down the West Coast.
Because Southwest's "pay to fly earlier" standby policy allows it to charge more for peak hour flights, this West Coast move alone must have generated a significant revenue boost. Congratulations on pulling it off!
Are your people going to publish any technical papers on your scheduling algorithms?
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Tory's proposal (posted June 27, 2006 at 8:13 am) is the best one I've seen so far. I would only add:
The assigned seats would be aft of the exit row, perhaps including the exit row seats (might as well charge for them). The charge for an assigned seat might vary according to the length of the flight, and would be $0 for a middle seat.
When checking in online or at a kiosk or at the airport, if you decline the assigned seating option, you would get an A, B, or C just as you do now. With the use of assigned seats, the size of the A/B/C groups could be reduced to 30 each.
Requiring online check-in within 24 hours of flight and payment of a fee would indeed limit the use of assigned seats to those who place the highest value on assigned seating. Limiting the number of these passengers and forbidding changes at the gate (if you want a different seat, just board with me and the rest of the open seating hoi polloi) should minimize the increase in turn times.
This certainly looks like a win-win to me. Yes, it would reduce my current success probability, cutting the number of aisle seats available ot group A in half, but I can live with that if it helps keep fares low.
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Ed from Vegas wrote: "As a senior passenger, with SWA policy that does not allow a senior ticket holder to check in online, it is impossible no matter how early you arrive at the airport to get an A boarding pass"
This was once the case, but for the better part of a year Southwest has provided a way for seniors to mail in proof of age and get age-verified for online check-in ability. This is explained at http://www.southwest.com/travel_center/seniors.html
Others have posted that you need to have a working printer to get an A. This is also incorrect. Just check in online without printing. When you get to the airport, go to the kiosk and it will print you the same letter that you saw earlier on your computer screen. If you can't be at a computer 24 hours ahead, phone a friend and have him do the check-in for you without printing. YOU DON'T NEED THE PRINTOUT AT ALL.
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This was the most persuasive comment I saw:
"It will be MUCH EASIER for Southwest loyal fliers to adapt to the change of assigned seating than to try and continue to force the "cattle-call" on new customers, and I'm quite certain the market research that Southwest has done demonstrates this or they wouldn't be testing it out.--Dave Moore in Salt Lake City"
The comments here show that some percentage of people are annoyed by the A/B/C process. To these people an assigned seat provides a security blanket. I don't understand it, but it's clearly a fact. My proposed conquest promotion does not address this problem.
It's also clearly a fact that today's easy-to-please Southwest customers will accept most kinds of change, including assigned seating, without defecting. Therefore Kelly is correct that careful consideration of a change is warranted.
Is there a way to combine the best of both systems? Perhaps. Personally I wouldn't mind assignment of part of the cabin (say, the back 1/4 and the front 1/4, boarded in that order) if those passengers had to pay an extra $10 to $20 for each non-middle assigned seat. For their extra money they would get earlier boarding, meaning assured bin space. When I have to gate check my roller bag, I'll just have to remind myself that these people are helping hold down my fares.
Anyway, my point is that after reading the blog comments I no longer contend that nearly everyone will prefer the A/B/C system once they get to know it. Some people are just not relaxed enough to adapt to it, and those people could bring significant revenue to Southwest.
On the other hand, assigned seating might require creation of an elite program: "Without open seating, IÃ
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I doubt that any new system lacking an elite preference feature can match my current nearly 100% aisle seat success rate. I got "A" boarding passes and aisle seats twice this week even when booking 18 hours before long-haul flights that were totally full. You just can't do that with the other guys unless you have elite status and perhaps not even then. JetBlue's first-come first-served assigned seating is particularly bad, leaving the late bookers paying top fares for middle seats.
Please don't change the current system on the whim of people who haven't flown Southwest since plastic boarding cards and have no idea how well A/B/C works. Those new customers won't stay with you if they don't like whatever new system you come up with. Better to give them a chance to get to know today's system: I mean really to get to know it.
My idea? Consider mailing a conquest promotion to other airlines' elite members, offering triple Rapid Rewards credits and guaranteeing an "A" for every flight during the next 3 months. Once the new customer has flown a few times, he will know the value of getting an A and he can get his own A the regular way. By then if you ask him whether Southwest should switch to assigned seating, his answer will be a resounding NO.
If targeting this promotion is a problem, just offer a less generous verion to everyone on a one-time basis, starting in the traditionally weak fall travel season.
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