Here’s The Struggle Southwest Airlines Will Face Bringing Back Customers

Southwest Airlines faces a problem in bringing back customers, and it’s unique in the recent history of airlines. When customers search flights, they mostly see schedule and price. And they tend to book the cheapest option that will reasonably work for them.

United Airlines survived David Dao. JetBlue survived an operational meltdown that led to the ouster of founder Dave Neeleman. But Southwest is a little bit different. When customers go to Expedia or Google Flights, they do not see Southwest’s schedules and prices included in their options. That’s by Southwest’s design. Southwest wants customers to go to their own website so they cannot compare.

Now they need to convince customers that it’s safe to go to their website, to even see their flights as an option. I had someone ask me on Friday whether they should even consider Southwest. I was a little bit surprised by the reason why. Here’s the straightforward question.

My parents are coming up to DC in Feb. Do you think it is ok to fly Southwest? Will they recover from this Christmas debacle?

I started out with the obvious answer, that the reset of Southwest’s operation happened and the airline is back to usual reliability (for better and worse). While there are no guarantees for any given flight, the holiday debacle isn’t the reason why a flight might cancel at this point and shouldn’t be a reason to avoid them.

Then the reader then clarified, “I just wondered if they would go out of business with all the people threatening to sue, etc.”

And it struck me: you might not go out of your way to search them, even less so now, if you’re uncertain about their future. To be clear that is not a well-founded fear. But if it’s one that’s widely held it could become one.

I do believe Southwest will recover but they need to continue to take steps to reinforce customer confidence. Covering expenses and handing out points is a first step. So is operating reliably again. But they need to invest in marketing to encourage customers to return to their channels. That’s more than just a one-off airdrop of points.

Southwest should:

  • Operate reliably and communicate clearly to customers that they’re doing so.
  • Remind customers that they are a better experience in standard coach, and that’s not just the usual message about ‘bags fly free’. It’s marketing malpractice that they do not tell people they offer more legroom, generally 32 inches of pitch versus 30 on competitors.
  • Offer incentives to bring people back. They need to leverage Rapid Rewards with generous promotions.
  • Consider finally showing schedules and prices to consumers on third party sites like Expedia and Priceline.
  • In other words it’s time to get aggressive marketing the ways in which Southwest is better, and making it easy and rewarding to do business with the airline.

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