Well, at least there’s Southwest

I’m not sure exactly when flying stopped being fun and started becoming a hassle. Flight delays will turn any flight into a hassle, no matter how outstanding the service. Still, I am old enough to remember when flying usually was fun. It was something you looked forward to. Maybe it was the warm moist hand towel served with before your meal so you could wash your hands. Yes, some airlines did this, even back in economy class. Real silverware was provided with hot meals back on Delta Airlines in the 1980s, also in economy class. Mostly, back then flying commercial was fun. There was usually a great view out the window, great looking flight attendants, and you felt fussed over.

Sometime in the 1980s, I took a People Express flight to Florida. I definitely saved money but the experience felt very third-world. It was my first experience flying on a cattle car of an airline. I’m not surprised that they went bankrupt, when you ended up connecting in Newark in a tired, ugly brick concourse. They had way more people than they had chairs, so mostly you found yourself sitting on the floor waiting for your connecting flight, then walking through a door with a hinge, out on the tarmac to a stairway to get on your plane. The flying part, when it finally happened, was excruciating, at least for a guy over six feet like me. The seats were painful for anyone under six feet, or anyone weighing more than two hundred pounds. To top it off, the plane was grimy and smelled of sweat.

Since the 1980s the flying experience has steadily degenerated. It is the unpaid price of airline deregulation, it seems. These days more often flying is both costly and a hassle. Free meals are a thing of the past, unless you are in business or first class. Getting a meal on any flight is problematical, but if you get one you will have to pay for it, and it will probably come in a snack box, in fact it will be more like a snack than a meal. We customers now pay for lots of things that used to be free: exit row seating (which used to be considered a hassle), baggage, early check in, two inches of additional leg room (or “Economy Plus” as United likes to call it), window seats, aisle seats and on at least one airline the privilege of using the toilet. In only one way has flying improved: smoking is no longer permitted, at least on flights within the United States.

The odd thing is no one really likes airline service. Certainly it’s unliked by customers, although many economists will argue that passengers now fly at a lower cost per mile flown than they ever have. The airlines don’t seem to like the business they are in, perhaps because it is no longer sexy. Most of them lose money and those that make money tend to do so sporadically. Airline attendants used to be paid a living wage; now not so much. Even captains get squeezed, particularly on commuter airlines where your pay may be as low at $18,264 a year, barely above minimum wage. Airlines also seem to merge regularly, most recently Southwest and AirTran, making you wonder if we will end up with a half dozen airlines, all of which will charge premium prices for mediocre service.

So I’ve learned to reduce my expectations flying. However, I still pine for days when the food served on airlines was hot and usually tasty, and when people actually dressed up to fly. Now I am mostly concerned about not getting ripped off, getting from point to point on time, and not having my knees painfully scrape the seat in front of me.

Lately I have been rebelling flying United Airlines. Typically I flew it everywhere I traveled for work, simply because they had the contract fare. It’s not even my money, so I shouldn’t care. But when it costs $1100 for a contract flight to and from Denver from Washington, D.C., I feel cheated. What do I get for all this money? Well, I do earn frequent flier miles, but in spite of traveling for business three to ten times a year, I never earn enough for a free flight, at least for some place I want to go at a time that works. The system seems programmed to frustrate you. Once I managed to get business class at no extra charge, but usually even that is not available. United carefully restricts the number of seats it will upgrade with frequent flier miles. Mostly they want you to pay $50 or $100 for the privilege, and will still dock your frequent flier miles.

This year, with one exception, I have been flying Southwest Airline exclusively. While remembering the airlines’ glory days, I am also appreciative of Southwest. Its system is a bit strange at first, but it is easy to get used to it. What I particularly like is saving money, even when it is not mine. Typically Southwest flights don’t even show up in our travel reservation system at work. I discovered that going to their web site and booking a web-only rate that I could cut the cost of a flight roughly in half compared with what my employer was paying for United and get a flight that suited me. Fortunately, since it cost less, I can book these flight.

What do I not get? Not much. Southwest doesn’t offer movies or any form of inflight entertainment. The recent exception has been Wifi, which you have to pay for, but which is not available on all flights. Fortunately, for most of us this is not a problem. We have our iPads, laptops and DVD players. They will keep us amused, but if not an eReader or old fashioned paper book will work as well.

I also lose the ability to book a seat. Instead, it is first boarded, first seated, which means twenty four hours before your flight you have incentive to get your boarding pass online. So it pays to watch the clock and get that boarding pass as soon as you can twenty four hours before your flight. Yesterday, I got my pass about ninety minutes after the window opened, and half of those on the flight had already gotten their pass! I ended up with B32, not a seat number, but an order for boarding. This got me an aisle seat three quarters of the way toward the back of the plane.

I did not lose the great airline meal, since they are not available anyhow.  Southwest does serve chips, cookies, pretzels and peanuts, and a complementary beverage. So if you expect to have a long flight, it makes much more sense to bring your food with you. Just don’t expect them to let you use their microwave.

What do I get?

  • Low prices. This is the main point. “Low” is relative, of course, but they consistently beat the competition, often by thirty percent or more.
  • Mostly predictable flying. Their planes seem to fly more predictably, probably because they are better maintained.
  • Faster ingress and egress. Their boarding system may seem a bit squirrely, but it works and it’s fast. No other airline can get people on or off a plane faster.
  • On time flights. Flights are usually on time; they have one of the best on-time ratings in the industry. My one experience with a delay recently flying back from Phoenix was that if your flight is delayed, they will hold your connecting flight if possible.
  • More legroom. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough where a tall person like me can sit comfortably. I can’t tell you as a tall person how painful it can be to spend hours with your knees pressed into the seat in front of me.
  • Better seating choices. In fairness, Southwest does offer an “Earlybird check in” where for $10 you can get a boarding pass 36 hours before a flight. Otherwise you must wait until 24 hours before the flight. In practice you don’t have to pay $10 to get a good seat. If it means enough to you, you will spend the money or take the time to make sure you get an early boarding pass.
  • Equality. No snobby walled off business or first class section. We are all equal in the eyes of Southwest employees, and are treated this way.
  • Free baggage. The first two bags are free. This means in addition to saving on airfare, I save my business typically $50 on baggage fees.
  • 737s. Give me one aisle and three across seating. It’s ordinary but it works just fine. These generic aircraft, perhaps because there are so many of them, tend to be more reliable than wide body aircraft.
  • Less marketing. Southwest of course has their frequent flier club and credit card, but they don’t relentlessly hawk it.  It’s a feature, not an attraction.
  • Chicago-Midway. They pretty much own the airport, which makes connecting flights so much more predictable than crowded and terminally flight-delayed O’Hare.
  • Locations. Southwest mostly flies where I want to go and now that they have more flights out of Washington Dulles I can get there without the hassle of driving to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Southwest is hardly the ideal airline, but it delivers on what matters: convenience, value and predictability. I no longer care about how many theoretical airline miles I have with United. I’m glad to trade them all away for the no-hassle flying that Southwest offers.