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Southwest trying more ways to lure business travelers

Let's try a little word association.

Business traveler: first class upgrades; reserved aisle seat; drinks at the airport club.

Southwest Airlines: coach-only seats; cattle car boarding; peanuts on the plane.

Admittedly, a little stereotyping. Southwest does fly plenty of road warriors, especially small-business owners and others paying out of their own pockets. But Southwest, the largest discount carrier in the country and the busiest airline at Tampa International Airport, makes about 40 percent of its revenue from business fliers, compared with more than 50 percent for network airlines like Delta and American.

The biggest obstacle remains Southwest's open seating, where passengers board in groups and pick whichever empty seats remain. Or as senior vice president Dave Ridley puts it, "the fear of being stuck in the middle seat for a three-hour flight."

Open seating won't change when Southwest acquires AirTran Airways in the first half of next year. That has riled up some loyal AirTran customers in the airline's Atlanta hub who have complained on airline online chat rooms about losing reserved seats and the airline's business class option (both for an extra fee).

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly expects some AirTran customers will bolt for other carriers. "We've got a brand and have long held out we're not all things to all people," he told airline reporters and industry followers last week at Southwest's Dallas headquarters.

Price and schedule remain the two biggest reasons people choose a particular airline. And expect Southwest to persistently pitch programs — some recent, some not — that benefit people flying on business, such as:

Early Bird: Southwest lets passengers get boarding passes, with their all-important boarding group, online 24 hours before departure. For $10 per flight, you can jump ahead of regular passengers and likely be among the first 60 "A" group passengers on the plane. No middle seat for you. About 13 percent of customers buy this upgrade.

Business Select: A premium fare ticket that puts you in line ahead of Early Bird travelers for the A group. You also can go to the front of the line at ticket counters and security checkpoints. Plus a free drink onboard.

No Ticket Change Fees: Unlike competitors that charge up to $150 to change a reservation, Southwest lets you keep the value of your ticket for a future flight. A real value for business travelers who often change flights at the last minute. But Southwest did change its rules recently restricting use of the credit to the ticket holder. Previously, a family member could use it.

Southwest is gaining traction with road warriors, says Joe Brancatelli, a veteran business travel writer and editor or the website JoeSentMe.com.

Its entrance into key business markets — New York, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis and, soon, Atlanta — was a huge step. Business travelers also like that Southwest refused to join the fee-for-everything herd.

Southwest's Rapid Rewards frequent flier program needs an upgrade, Brancatelli says. It needs to offer leisure destinations like Hawaii, Asia and Europe (Southwest flies only in the continental United States). The airline plans a Rapid Reward makeover next year.

"I'd prefer an assigned seat," he says. "But business travelers know it's easy and simple. It's the I-don't-have-to-put-up-with-this-crap alternative.''

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (727)893-8128.

Southwest trying more ways to lure business travelers 11/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 3:22pm]
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