Southwest Airlines May Make A Dangerous Change

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Southwest Airlines May Make A Dangerous Change.

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

When you like a brand, you rarely want it to change too much.

You want it to give you what it’s always given you and, if there’s a change, you want to be sure it’s for the better. Your better, that is.

For decades, Southwest Airlines has managed to create a distinctive brand and a deeply-held relationship with its customers. But money always casts a foreboding shadow. Wall Street has, for some time now, pressured the airline to make (even) more. And so it is that disquieted voices have got wind of a survey recently conducted by the airline.

Southwest usually tries to keep things simple. It doesn’t charge for bags or for ticketing changes — other than the difference in fares. Why, even its planes are all one sort of Boeing 737 or another. And the fare structure is eminently understandable. There’s Wanna Get Away, there’s AnyTime and there’s Business Select.

But now, whisper it quietly — even to yourself — there are fears that Southwest is contemplating some sort of Sub-Cattle Class. I’m sorry, I mean Basic Economy.

USA Today reported that frequent flyers on the FlyerTalk forums have revealed a survey being directed to those who sit on the airline’s Customer Advisory Council.

The questions revolved around a new naming scheme for Southwest’s fares — one that involves not three fare categories, but four.

Sample:

Wanna Get the Most, Wanna Get More, Wanna Get Away + and Wanna Get Away.

Or how about:

Complete Freedom, Freedom, Wanna Get Away Plus, Wanna Get Away.

Another one bordered on the excruciating:

Go Ultimate, Go Anytime, Wanna Flex, Wanna Get Away.

Wanna Flex? Surely you’d bend over backwards for that.

Troubled realists will perhaps fear a subtext here. If there are suddenly four fare categories, one will be the equivalent of Basic Economy, the dreaded, (supposedly) cheapest fare category which, on United for example, means no use of the overhead bins.

How could it be otherwise? The mere mention of four categories will necessarily make the last one feel like the one you never want to choose if you can help it. The whole psychology of Basic Economy was to get passengers to dislike the concept so much they’d pay more to get merely the same as they did before.

Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly, however, has been adamant that his airline won’t follow a trend now embraced by most other major airlines. There won’t ever be Basic Economy, he said.

Naturally, I asked Southwest whether it was now succumbing to basic instincts. I tried more than once. Sadly, I was unable to get a response.

Absurd optimists — and some realists — will imagine that the current regular Southwest offering will actually stay the same, while there will be gradations of “better.” These might feature tiny touches such as, who knows, extra legroom, free drinks or even an unlimited supply of peanuts and pretzels. Or, oh surely not, Southwest will start to charge for specific seats, just as other airlines do.

What, though, might a worse-than-regular Southwest offering look like? Might it be a ticket on which you’ll permanently lose your money if, for some reason, your plans change? Currently, the lowest, Wanna Get Away fare is nonrefundable, but can be used to book future travel on Southwest.

Strategically, presenting a new, lower class of fare will be the finest dance Southwest may have to perform. If, even for a second, it feels as if the airline is trying to worsen its essential product it could have a painful effect on the brand as a whole.

One of the most difficult maneuvers in business is trying to make more money while keeping your customers emotionally on your side.

It’s the passionate loyalty of Southwest’s customers that makes the very idea of a Southwest Basic Economy so difficult to conceive.

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