Southwest Airlines — is consistency their ultimate frill?

by Janice Hough on December 4, 2013


While the perks of being a frequent flier aren’t what they were, there are still major advantages to elite status with the legacy carriers, early boarding, waitlist priority, occasional upgrades and extra legroom in some cases. With United elite status, I realize that my experience is generally much more pleasant than it could be.

On the other hand, a quick trip on Southwest Airlines reminded me of the one thing legacy carriers don’t offer any of their fliers — consistency.

The cattle-call boarding process, to use an overworked phrase, “is what it is.” On the other hand, Southwest limits the numbers, making it quite straightforward; A 1-30 on one side, A 31-60 on another, and so on through the letters and numbers. And only when A has boarded do they line up B. Right through to the dreaded “C” (aka “C” for center).

But because Southwest only has 60 maximum lined up at a time, in two rows, it does reduce the mob element that plagues other airlines around the boarding gates. This is especially true on flights with a lot of elites where it seems as if half the plane or more are in the first boarding groups. (And unfortunately, as carriers sell more and more priority boarding, it feels as if the priority boarding groups are getting bigger and bigger.)

Boarding, on the other hand, is a relatively small part of the flight. A larger issue is onboard amenities. And, while Southwest has the no-frills reputation, they have TV access on most of their flights (though passengers have to use their own devices) and most of their planes have Wi-Fi.

Again, the legacy carriers just aren’t there. Is it the end of the world being unplugged? No. But it’s maddeningly inconsistent. (Virgin America actually is the only carrier with 100 percent Wi-Fi on planes.)

Personally, in the last two and a half months, I’ve ended up on three long United flights, from 4 1/2 to 6 1/2 hours, with not only no Wi-Fi, but no TV, movies or even audio, including even the old fashioned overhead movies. According to one flight attendant, the carrier is getting rid of entertainment systems on many domestic planes in favor of an “eventual” Wi-Fi model.

And United has also had some new planes that Boeing shipped “naked,” in another flight attendant’s words. He told me the aircraft manufacturer delivers with simply the seats, and United puts in the Direct TV, or more likely Wi-Fi. Normally it gets done when they first get the planes, but since flights are full, United is pressing the planes into service as is, and will do the installation at their leisure when it is slower.

Admittedly, flying on a “naked” plane is a first world problem. But when you’ve been planning and counting on getting work done or even seeing a football game, it can be pretty frustrating.

United does in theory advise passengers who care in advance about what’s available on their plane, though it’s something that must be searched for, especially on, and doesn’t come in updates or the notice saying whether the flight is or is not on time. And in two of my recent three flights, the information turned out to be wrong. (The first with an equipment change, and the second because the Wi-Fi wasn’t working, which the flight attendant told me happens often.)

It’s not only United. Clients complain constantly about the inconsistency of the legacy carriers, where leaving aside weather, flight crews and other issues, passengers just don’t know what plane they are getting, or what amenities they are getting on the plane. The inconsistency problems continue with wide variance in other services, like on-board power outlets, seat configuration, legroom, etc.

To be fair, the legacy carriers have more complications to deal with involving their planes, especially as all of them are now the result of mergers involving multiple types of aircraft. And yes, as mentioned, the legacy carrier perks for elites still have some value, especially when you can snag an upgrade.

But while consistency may be the “hobgoblin of little minds,” it can still be awfully welcome on an airline trip.

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