Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Southwest flies into the red

The hard times in the airline industry in particular, and the broad economy in general, finally hit that bastion of airline profitability, Southwest Airlines. Today, they posted their first loss in 17 years—an amazing streak that has finally come to an end.

It's no surprise. With the crazy economic times we find ourselves in, even a savvy, creative company like Southwest is going to find it challenging to maintain profitability. I'm hardly the poster boy for these hard times—I make a decent living, I'm not a homeowner, and I haven't cut back much on my traveling—but even I am trying to fly less. I abandoned several potential trips earlier this year because the air fares were too high; I'm driving to Buffalo this weekend instead of flying; and we're using a combination of auto and train travel to go to Indianapolis for Christmas.

I'm not sharing anything new when I say that the reasons for flying less are more than economical. In my opinion, the airlines might not be having quite as bad a time if they'd tried to offset higher fares and new fees by increasing the quality of customer service. Any reasonable person understands the business need to raise prices when costs increase. But to do so in a way that negatively affects the service experience ($2 for water?) is just dumb. And to not try to ease peoples' pain by offering better customer service (which costs nothing, except for perhaps additional training) is even dumber. You're already turning people off with the higher prices; why push more of them away with bad service?

So again, it was no surprise to read that Southwest went into the red. The real surprise is going to be the news that an airline posted a profitable quarter. Who knows when that will happen?

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