Southwest Airlines plans new drinks, seats, crew uniforms
The airline is planning new drinks, seats, uniforms and other amenities.
- Southwest has one of its biggest hubs in Phoenix, with 180 daily non-stop flights
- It is considering adding more short-hop flights
- The beer and cocktail menus have been expanded, and new seats are coming
HOUSTON — Southwest Airlines takes its biggest leap yet in international service this week when it adds daily flights to Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica from its new $146 million terminal at William P. Hobby Airport.
"This is the year of Houston,'' CEO Gary Kelly said during a media preview of the five-gate terminal Thursday.
He said Houston, one of Southwest's three original cities and a geographic no-brainer as an international hub, will be the airline's focus for "quite some time.''
"This will be a priority for us,'' Kelly said.
Executives hinted that a few new cities south of the border could be added next year from Houston but were mum beyond that. Phoenix passengers, who already have a flurry of non-stop flights to Latin America on US Airways/American, won't see non-stop international flights on Southwest anytime soon, if ever, but can book one-stop flights via Houston or Orange County, Calif.
International flights and Southwest's biting new "Transfarency'' advertising campaign, which pokes fun at competitors' fees, stole the show at Southwest's media day but the airline has plenty more on its plate.
Here are nine things to watch for from the airline that carries 1 in 4 domestic passengers and more Phoenix passengers than any carrier including American/US Airways.
- New destinations. In addition to new international flights, Southwest sees opportunities for flights within the United States. Altogether, the airline has 50 destinations on its radar, including Cuba. It currently serves 97 destinations. "Right now, we’re just trying to figure out what is the next best move," Kelly said. "There's a number of things that will factor into that choice.''
- No rush to fly to Hawaii. Hawaii flights, which Southwest long has had in its sights and would be a natural from Phoenix, aren't happening in the near future. The airline needs a year's notice for the necessary approvals for over-water flights and hasn't started the clock yet. "Right now, we feel no need,'' said Andrew Watterson, Southwest's senior vice president of network and revenue management. He said the airline has plenty of more pressing opportunities.
- More short hops. Southwest and other carriers dramatically cut the number of flights on shorter routes after 9/11 because of the time-consuming security requirements that made driving a better proposition for many and because high jet fuel prices in the past several years sent airfares up sharply. Phoenix was hit hard, with Southwest significantly reducing the number of flights to cities including San Diego, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Southwest executives say lower jet fuel prices and resulting lower fares mean that business could start to grow again. That is good news for travelers who miss the frequent flight options. "That's our bread and butter, and it's a big one for Phoenix,'' Kelly said. "We would want to be very, very tuned into that.''
- Better in-flight Internet service? Addressing questions about the airline's often slow Internet service, Kelly said, "We need to improve the performance.'' He said most passengers don't buy the service (it's $8) but added, "Of course that performance may have some impact on that.'' He said in-flight technology is evolving. "It will be on our priority list to continue to look for opportunities to improve that.'''
- On-time flights. The airline, which used to tout its stellar on-time performance, has struggled mightily the past two years as its operation has grown complex and and it tried to cram more flights into its schedule. It has been showing improvement lately but Kelly isn't satisfied. "I think we have a decent shot at 80 percent annual on-time performance this year, but that falls a little bit short of our target,'' he said. "I think our on-time performance is good but I think we have opportunities to improve and we will.'' Altogether, the airline, which has doubled in size since 2000, plans to spend $75 million to $100 million next year to improve its overall operation.
- New in-flight drinks. Southwest this month debuted a broad new cocktail menu. There are 20 mixed drinks, including a margarita (Southwest didn't carry tequila until now) to a "Whoa Coco," which is Jack Daniel's and hot chocolate. They are $5. Southwest also added Leinenkugel to its beer menu. It is also $5. Bob Jordan, Southwest's executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said the goal is to drive onboard revenue as well as add a little fun and "quirkiness'' for passengers.
- New seats. Beginning next summer, all new planes coming into Southwest's fleet will have thinner, lighter seats, which Southwest says will be the widest in economy class anywhere and will offer more legroom. They have adjustable head rests. The seats were on display in Houston, complete with a virtual reality tour of what the new cabins will look like. (The jury is still out on how comfortable the seats will be. The ones I tested were stiff.) The seats are made of eLeather, which Jordan humorously described as the chicken nugget of leather. Southwest said it has no plans to add a row of seats to its planes, as some competitors have to boost revenue and spread out costs. "We have no desire to cram another row of seats into the aircraft simply because we have a new seat,'' Jordan said.
- New employee uniforms. Next year, Southwest will debut its first new employee uniforms in 20 years. Eighty percent of the workforce wears a uniform, so it's a big project. Employees have led the $23 million undertaking. Frequent travelers may already have gotten a glimpse of the brighter uniforms, designed to match the airline's paint scheme unveiled last year, as some employees are wearing them on a test basis.
- Continued free in-flight TV. Southwest offers nine live television channels and up to 75 shows from popular series for passengers to watch on their own devices.(No Wi-Fi required.) The partnership started with DISH Network but is now sponsored by Southwest's frequent-flier credit card and Budget Rent a Car. Kelly said he likes the free TV service and has no plans to change that.