Southwest Airlines’ Baggage Strategy

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Eric Joiner, Jr. calls Southwest Airlines’ baggage strategy — which promotes checked bags — pure genius:

Southwest Airlines flies a network within the United States that uses basically one airplane. The Boeing 737. For this reason, baggage capacity is fairly consistent with passenger load. Also anyone making a connection is likely to make a connection to another SWA 737, so baggage load factor remains fairly consistent across the network. This has major advantages.

By inspiring customers to check bags, aircraft can be loaded and unloaded much faster than if passengers carry bags onto the main deck and put them in the overhead bin. Anyone who has been on a fully loaded jet recently knows it can take 15-20 minutes just to get the passengers off the plane. The bigger the jet, the longer this takes. Time spent on the ground means time not in the air. Airlines only make money when the jet is flying. By encouraging passengers to check bags and by operating a homogeneous network, SWA can turn flights faster and thus create more profit for the airline.

What you are actually witnessing is an extension of Southwests fuel strategy. SWA has always done a brilliant job of fuel cost hedging. That is buying futures in jet fuel against probable market cost at time of consumption. Turning aircraft faster means more revenue for the fuel already purchased. Consider this a post hedge leverage on the gas in the tank.

Other airlines either dont get it, or can’t. Look at Continental and Delta as examples. If I fly Delta from Phoenix, Az to Savannah, Ga, I am going to fly on a Boeing 757 to Atlanta, then change planes to a regional jet operated by a 3rd party commuter airline like Chautauqua. If I pack golf clubs, a suit case, and maybe my wife does the same, there will be more baggage than the feeder aircraft can accommodate. This is a big problem especially to vacation destinations where scuba gear, skis, golf clubs etc, are part of the bag mix. For this reason, the majors discourage checked baggage.

They don’t want you to bring luggage in the first place because you screw up their network planning. Most majors don’t want you to have ANY bags. They don’t want to carry them and especially they don’t want the liability for tracking and reuniting you with a bag left behind because of network mismatch.

Consumers think the airlines lost the luggage. In fact many times the airline couldn’t accommodate it so they chose to pay a premium to deliver it to you later, often at the cost of your loyalty and future business.

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