When I picked up my mail yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to find a small package waiting for me. I was so curious that I opened it right in the post office and discovered a nifty luggage tag with my name printed on it.

The little gift arrived from Southwest Airlines with a note thanking me for five years of membership in their Rapid Rewards program. I had to laugh when I realized they were thanking me for taking advantage of their free flight program.

It’s no secret that I’ve been smitten with SWA from my very first encounter with them a decade or so ago. I had flown to Sacramento from Minneapolis on Northwest (almost the only option), but was taking a side trip to visit my family in southern California.

When I arrived at the airport, I stopped to ask a question at the gate. The gate agent then asked me if I was returning home to Burbank. “No,” I said, “it’s my birthday so I’m going to spend the rest of it with my daughter.”

By this time, the waiting area was filling up so I found a seat in the back and settled in. A few minutes later, the gate agent came on the PA system and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an important person flying with us tonight. Would you join me in singing Happy Birthday to Barbara?”

As my fellow passenger broke out in a rousing chorus, I blushed and thought, “This would never happen on NWA.” I’d had enough experience with the older carrier to know that making their passengers smile was not in their company policy manual.

Shortly after I moved to Minneapolis, Making a Living Without a Job became one of the most popular adult ed classes in the country. For the next decade, I flew frequently  and eventually amassed a million miles on NWA. (Note: I didn’t even receive a thank you note when I hit that milestone.)

It wasn’t because I loved the airline so much, however, that they got my business. In Minnesota, NWA had a near monopoly, bumping out other carriers and making it difficult to exercise any choice in the matter.

This lack of competition produced visible results. Airfares were higher, crews surlier, and planes dirtier. After all, there was no incentive for doing things well when customers had no other options.

After I moved to Las Vegas, I vowed to fly NWA only as a last resort. Even though I have frequent flyer miles sitting in my account, I have managed to avoid setting foot on one of their planes.

(On my last flight with them, my seatmate was a smelly drunk who should not have been allowed to board. Shortly after takeoff, he nodded off and began groping my leg. Instead of moving him from first class back to coach, I got reseated in a cramped smaller seat.)

On the other hand, I’ve wracked up numerous jolly memories of my flights with SWA. I often wonder if they studied NWA’s way of doing business and decided, “Let’s do the opposite.”

Saturday night stay over? Not required. Hire flight attendants who actually like people? Good idea. Keep things simple and efficient? Makes sense. Charge for baggage? Heck, no. Give passengers an in-flight magazine that’s actually worth reading? Let’s do it. Allow passengers to catch an earlier flight for no charge if there’s room? Sure.

So here’s another radical idea, one you can use even if you aren’t running an airline.

Find a business that disappoints you. Study how they operate. Don’t just be annoyed, however. Learn from them.

Then simply do the opposite.

4 Responses to “NWA vs. SWA (And the winner is…)”

  1. Liz de Nesnera - Bilingual English & French VO

    What a great post!
    I’ve said it before & I’ll say it again….I have learned 2 things from each of my various previous employers: What TO do…and what NOT to do!…the latter being extra important now that I am joyfully my own boss! 🙂



  2. Traci Johnson

    I love, love, love SWA! They are fun, friendly and always put the customer first. I can honestly say that I’ve never had a bad experience on their airline and I share my accolades with them every chance I get.

    Thanks for the great post Barbara!

  3. Sue Sullivan

    Too funny, Barbara. My husband hates having people sing happy birthday to him in public. Now, I’m so tempted to book a flight with SWA on his birthday!

    We fly SWA all the time now. I don’t even consider another carrier unless SWA doesn’t go to that destination.

    Good idea to notice what not to do. I’ve been so lucky working for the Apple Store seeing what to do and how they keep improving on it. They’re always looking at how to do it even better. Since even the best has aspects that need it.

  4. Iris M. Gross

    I had to book a flight to Boston for an extended Thanksgiving stay, and I had to do it before the end of October to get the best rates. But when searching for the best rates, I was finding that a couple airlines had better rates, which I’m more mindful of nowadays, what with being unemployed and being picky about how much I spend. When I was told by the people who would be hosting me that Southwest finally flew into Logan now instead of Manchester or Providence, I went online to see what I could find, and was at first disappointed that they were actually higher than Delta and American (but not United). I was finally convinced to go with SWA anyway because of the lack of baggage fees, and when I fixed it so that I could stay a couple extra days and leave on a Monday rather than a Sunday, it made the pricing more competitive with the others, if still not that much cheaper. So long story short, I’m now looking forward to my first flight experience with SWA! P.S. The title of this blog really had me worried at first, for reasons I’m going to keep to myself! 🙂

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