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Southwest Airlines ready for bumpy ride, says communications director

Ginger Hardage discusses the culture inside Southwest Airlines at a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Ginger Hardage discusses the culture inside Southwest Airlines at a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

As Southwest Airlines grew into a national powerhouse, Ginger Hardage directed how the low-fare carrier told its story. A year ago, the airline's longtime communications director took on the additional duty of protecting Southwest's gung-ho, people-first culture.

Hardage told a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce lunch crowd Thursday how the airline built its brand based on the internal culture. She talked with the Times about challenges at Southwest, checked bag fees and how passengers feel about cell phones on planes.

How is Southwest dealing with the big drop in airline passengers and sales of higher-priced walk-up fares?

Business travel is declining with the economy, so more and more we're discounting our fares and bringing in more leisure travelers. On an aircraft, if we lose our five business travelers we're having to replace those with 15 leisure customers.

Doesn't that present a problem as the leisure-heavy summer travel season winds down?

Kids go back to school, so it always drops off in September. And business travel is really not recovering. We're really watching that in the next three quarters.

Isn't escalating unemployment dampening leisure travel as well?

We know it's having an impact. If you're not working, you're probably not taking your family very far away on vacation. That's one of the reasons for all the discounting. So you saw fares on Southwest Airlines recently for $30. So, we are deeply discounting to incentify people to travel.

Do you expect more fare sales by Southwest and competitors?

Air travel is a bargain, and it will probably continue to be for some time.

How long can you continue to let passengers check two bags for free?

Our competitors are all charging for bags. So, we have to be open-minded. We carry close to 100 million customers a year for a reason. They come to us for our low fares. They are aware of how much the total cost of a trip is going to be. So, we have not said that we will never do that. But it's something we always have to weigh with the impact on our brand.

How close is Southwest to offering Wi-Fi in its fleet?

We're testing four aircraft. We're testing quality, customer receptivity, usage, and also we're doing some price testing. We're out to make a decision by the end of the summer.

That could enable your aircraft to let passengers use cell phones in flight. Is that in the cards if federal agencies drop cell phone bans?

By and large, customers don't want that. They primarily don't want to sit by somebody else who's doing that. Overwhelmingly.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Southwest Airlines ready for bumpy ride, says communications director 07/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 9:53pm]
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