Putting Egalitarianism Before Convenience — And Revenues
from the stay-off-our-turf dept
Stories about airlines trying to use technology to improve their boarding process pop up from time to time, and while other airlines tinker with how they put passengers on their planes, Southwest sticks to its simple technique of unassigned seats and mass boarding. It says it does this to save time, and therefore money, but it’s also a nod to the image of egalitarianism on which Southwest thrives. It’s successfully created the perception that it’s an airline of the people, democratizing air travel for everyone and sticking it to the man — in this case, its full-service rivals with their snooty upper-class passengers in the front of the plane. The strategy’s worked very well, too, as Southwest’s track record indicates, so it’s not surprising to see it move to maintain that image. It’s now moving to shut down sites that let customers “cheat” its online check-in procedure so as to secure a boarding pass in the first of three groups, allowing them to get the seat they want. Southwest customers can check in online up to 24 hours before a flight’s departure; these services log on to the airline’s site at the 24-hour mark and take care of it for a customer. While the Web 2.0 crowd is probably wowed at this awesome mashup, Southwest isn’t amused and says the sites violate its site’s terms of service — even though it says it’s okay if you give a family member your information to log on and get a boarding pass for you. The issue, though, isn’t Southwest’s petty objection to the technology, but rather putting its egalitarian image above its business. Plenty of people, business travelers in particular, don’t like Southwest’s boarding process, and it likely costs the carrier more customers than it attracts. Additionally, the fact that some people were actually willing to pay for these services points out an opportunity for Southwest to generate some incremental revenues — something most low-cost airlines would jump on. It could sell the ability to be in the coveted group A, or guarantee frequent fliers early boarding, like many other airlines do to reward repeat customers, but also to keep their business. While Southwest’s (relatively) low fares and customer-equality streak are admirable, it’s worth wondering to what degree its egalitarian bent hamstrings its business.