Saturday, October 6, 2007

More Lessons on Customer Service: Southwest Airlines

A lot has been written about Southwest Airlines: The carrier's quirky corporate culture, its David versus Goliath origins, the fact that it is one of the very few airlines in the industry to consistently turn a profit (Southwest turned its first annual profit in 1973, and has done so every year since — a record unmatched by any other commercial airline). It's one of the world's most profitable airlines and in January 2007, posted a profit for the 34th consecutive year.

In other areas, Southwest also sets the industry standard: For on-time departures and arrivals and baggage service... It is the largest airline in the United States by number of passengers carried domestically per year and the second largest airline in the world by number of passengers carried... In several other categories, Southwest sets the standard.

Which brings me to a story my grandfather told me many years ago: A pioneer in the advertising industry, Grandpa Murray was probably one of the world's first frequent flyers. He always traveled in a suit and tie and later in his life bemoaned the fact that "the masses" did not regard air travel as the "transportation experience" that he always did. The fact that he was almost a contemporary of Wilbur and Orville Wright instilled in him a deep respect (and fear) of traveling at tens of thousands of feet in a cigar tube. He told the most marvelous stories of the luxuries he enjoyed during his air travels; he also related some truly frightening tales of terror at twenty+ thousand feet.

Nowadays, most airline travelers don't expect much, given the reduction in amenities, services, and civility that has occured over the past twenty years in the airline industry. Southwest's model fits perfectly with our hurried and harried age: Get us out on time, get us there on time, and do it safely.

Which brings me to what is the most important component to customer service in the airline industry: Safety. Just six years after 9/11, we take airline safety for granted.

But the fact is, the popularity of travel by air, larger planes with more passengers and hundreds of daily flights have all led to a dramatic increase in the number of accidents and deaths since 1970. That trend will no doubt continue with larger aircraft coming online--the mammoth A380 and the Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" to name two that have recently been in the news.

That makes the following fact even more impressive: In its more than 35 year history, Southwest has had three major incidents of note, one involving a passenger fatality caused by other passengers providing assistance to the in-flight crew, and one involving a ground fatality. Southwest Airlines has never had a passenger fatality due to an accident. That's the most important customer service category, and clearly the one that means the most to anyone who flies.

I'm not shilling here for Southwest; I write this blog after having taken yet another flawless flight from Baltimore to Providence, and am reflecting on the smoothness of the entire experience. I've flown USAir, Delta, Continental, Northwest, Czech Air, Aeroflot, El Al, China Air, Korean Air, Austrian Air, Singapore Air, and on and on, but if I had my choice, I would fly Southwest everywhere.

No comments: