Southwest has grown to operate hundreds of airplanes in scores of cities. Despite competing in an industry that is infamous for bankruptcies and massive financial losses, Southwest marked its thirty-eighth profitable year in a row in 2010.
Why has Southwest succeeded while many other airlines have failed? Historically, the firm has differed from its competitors in a variety of important ways. Most large airlines use a “hub and spoke” system. This type of system routes travelers through a large hub airport on their way from one city to another. Many Delta passengers, for example, end a flight in Atlanta and then take a connecting flight to their actual destination. The inability to travel directly between most pairs of cities adds hours to a traveler’s itinerary and increases the chances of luggage being lost. In contrast, Southwest does not have a hub airport; preferring instead to connect cities directly. This helps make flying on Southwest attractive to many travelers.
Southwest has also been more efficient than its rivals. While most airlines use a variety of different airplanes, Southwest operates only one type of jet: the Boeing 737. This means that Southwest can service its fleet much more efficiently than can other airlines. Southwest mechanics need only the know-how to fix one type of airplane, for example, while their counterparts with other firms need a working knowledge of multiple planes. Southwest also gains efficiency by not offering seat assignments in advance, unlike its competitors. This makes the boarding process move more quickly, meaning that Southwest’s jets spend more time in the air transporting customers (and making money) and less time at the gate relative to its rivals’ planes.
Organizational culture is the dimension along which Southwest perhaps has differed most from its rivals. The airline industry as a whole suffers from a reputation for mediocre (or worse) service and indifferent (sometimes even surly) employees. In contrast, Southwest enjoys strong loyalty and a sense of teamwork among its employees.