Apr 27 2010
Oil prices are climbing steadily upwards, expensive airline regulations are increasing, and thanks to the internet price-competition for tickets has swelled. In order to optimize revenues in a mature and low-margin industry, airlines have largely resorted to hidden and unusual fees—charging for everything from drinks to towels to restroom usage. The larger airlines lie in wait to see if Spirit Airlines will survive charging for carry-on bags. If so, expect even this to be common within a few years.
One of the central predictions of the film “Super Size Me” was that society is just a few years away from it being culturally accepted to discriminate against overweight people the way we currently tolerate comments and policies aimed at smokers. Airlines have never crossed this line—rather, society and some governments don’t yet allow it; but the airlines are eagerly watching the popular responses to a few visible skirmishes along these lines.
Southwest, the airline that is known for not giving into trick pricing, has taken an unpopular stance on this one. It has begun asking large passengers to buy a second seat. International carriers would quickly find this illegal in places like Canada, but in the United States, it’s just culturally controversial, and therefore fodder for the marketing ethicists of a peculiarly domestic airline.
Really, the policy isn’t illogical or activist. Fuel costs are a major factor in airline operations, and flight weight is a major factor in fuel consumption. Charging more for a heavy passenger is just as logical as charging more for shipping a heavy package. Besides, the number of seats in a plane are defined by the average size of the passenger, including the flight weight of the entire jet. In other words, if 150 three-hundred pound men boarded a flight, the laws of physics would require the flight be cancelled, no matter how comically unpopular the image would be.
I witnessed something similar once. I was at a very local airport in a small town, relaxing, watching Cessnas and Pipers the size of economy cars take off and land. I was probably eating fast food at the time and sitting in an economy car myself. Then a full-sized Boeing jumbo jet landed. I soon saw that the cargo was not a group of dignitaries, but the local college football team—53 men who can’t fit in 17” seats, along with their “large” entourage. What is the ideal business response to this? They are frequent fliers who can’t be accommodated in the current system, so money is being left on the table.
Since its inception, Southwest has always been the low-cost, low-priced, option. They accomplished this through hedging oil prices, avoiding union battles, and their point-to-point (non spoke-and-hub) flight paths. But the touchpoints of customer service were always given top priority. They focused on friendliness and high ROI services while spinning every inconvenience as a sacrifice the customer was eager to make—like Costco, whose success is largely a factor of their calculated requests for sacrifice (versus the visibly friendlier and cleaner Sam’s Club, who didn’t fare as well.) Similarly Southwest largely derives loyalty from the calculated sacrifice of its customers.
Viscerally, I equate Southwest as the only airline where I can actually choose where I want to sit, the fun airline, the airline that won’t trick me with fees, and the airline with the largest planes. Southwest only flies 737s, which have 124-160 seats. For most flights I take, Delta only flies Canadair 900s, which have 76 seats. They are simply smaller planes, and for all their televisions and frequent flier miles I can barely buckle the seatbelt, the plane is always turbulent and stuffy, and despite my being 5’7” my head always touches the ceiling.
In sales I used to always joke that no matter how much people hate you, they’ll always drop their guards if you mention nostalgic 80s television shows. Similarly, when I ride Delta, I know that no matter the situation, I can always get what I want from the customer next to me if I joke about the agony of flying Delta. As such, my recommendation is that Southwest swim upstream in not punishing overweight customers. The ethics (perceived societal morals) of the issue will counterbalance the occasional $200 benefit. Having the highest passenger-to-pilot ratio coupled with a solid overcapacity, Southwest should focus on unbridled growth. In line with its primary competency of being foremost focused on the customer experience, this growth will come most easily from marketing. While staying short of overtly recruiting overweight customers in this era of high fuel costs, I believe that there is considerable market share—especially the coveted young, techno-savvy business market share—to be had from a variation on the following theme: “Because we don’t resell your business to regional carriers with their tiny jets, we average much a larger average seat size and more headroom than our competition. By the way, big planes means we’re faster, on time more often, and have less turbulence.” Bragging about the 737 itself is a potential source of marketing growth that Southwest hitherto hasn’t gone after (perhaps historically just to avoid the further commitment, but that’s moot now.)
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