Monday, May 16, 2005

Fly the friendly skies

After a number of stories on United Airline’s bankruptcy and pension cuts, I boarded my Southwest Airlines flight to San Diego today with the usual grey cloud of an industry overshadowed by failure. Southwest has found success among its competitors’ failures by executing creative and ballsy marketing decisions. We all know about Southwest’s decision to appear on the reality show “Airline” when other companies pulled up their landing gear at the thought of exposing their inner workings. Most who’ve flown know that singing stewardesses, stand-up-comedian pilots and unlimited drink refills are a welcomed norm on flights of any distance. I also appreciate the “cattle call” boarding practice, as it allows me to pick a seat next to the most attractive or interesting looking person on board.

Moreover, during the tense travel atmosphere after September 11, 2001, passengers were pleasantly surprised to find Southwest’s staff focused on making jokes and wearing khaki shorts. The little things, you might say, but those little things have stuck and created planes filled with brand apostles.

Back to today. I am seated behind two enlisted men, very close to my age of 25. This flight is one of a few they’ll take over the next few days as part of their eventual deployment to Iraq. Both men started the flight with the typical stern, worn and nervous countenance that their position in life requires. They are buddies who will be split once they get to Iraq, with the potential of losing contact for a while, or completely.

As drinks were served for this three-hour flight, both men ordered a Miller Lite. The steward came around, cracked the tops and charged the men nothing. The steward said, “Thank you for what you do” and walked away. Nice gesture. Many people around the men said “thank you,” or started small talk. I watched as Southwest executed a six-dollar-marketing budget to ensure those around these two soldiers remembered that hospitality and appreciation the next time they book a flight. That’s crude marketing speak, and I’m confident the steward saw this as a way to show his admiration and thanks, and nothing more.

Ten minutes later though, the steward came back with two more beers. After the rest of the plane had settled into a nap, the steward returned with two more beers. And again.

I’d guess that Southwest has no written policy to serve beer to enlisted passengers. An unwritten nudge to recognize those that are fighting for our freedom might be in place. Maybe one beer and some extra peanuts, but I doubt that round after round was something the steward was told to do by his crew supervisor. No, this was his policy.

This reminded me of a speech by our company’s founder, Bill Fromm. Bill, an expert in customer service and a well-recognized authority on the subject, talked about elements of successful client relations. One of his points was the impact of empowering employees to solve problems and take initiative – sometimes without the approval of their superiors – when faced with an opportunity to go the extra mile, or respond to an urgent situation. This steward knew that his corporate culture supported his decision to toss a few free beers to two men whose next flight could be gunned down.

From opening its inner workings to television crews or singing the latest pop hit during the pre-departure safety speech to eating the cost of a few cans of beer, Southwest is doing what no other mainstream commercial airline can seem to figure out: it’s putting independence in travel again, and has found a way to unite travelers, and in a small way, our country.


Anonymous Snutt said...

I hate the cattle call of Southwest flights. Just as you enjoy sitting next to interesting/attractive people, I find it a total turn-off to watch people jostle, push, fight, and try to ensure that THEY get the best seat on the plane. I think it brings out the worst in Americans, possibly more so than an all-you-can-eat buffet.

10:20 AM  

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