Southwest: Why It's Promoting No Change Fees and Its Web Site

Last Updated Nov 2, 2010 2:42 PM EDT

Yesterday I looked at the success of Southwest's (LUV) Bags Fly Free campaign, and today it's time to look at what's next on the horizon. It looks like the two messages coming to the forefront are 1) not having change fees, and 2) buying your ticket at southwest.com.

What do the two have in common? Nothing, but they're two messages that, from its research, Southwest thinks it needs to get out.

Change Fees Southwest is the only airline that allows changes without a fee. Legacy carriers tend to be $150 per change while low cost carriers are somewhere below that, but they all have them. This is a benefit for Southwest, but it's not a very easy message for a few reasons.

But first, why is Southwest doing this? It's again because surveys show that it matters. A full 64 percent of business travelers and 42 percent of leisure travelers say it's either extremely or very important to them when buying a ticket. So at Media Day, Southwest said:
We are here to reaffirm we are not charging change fees
And that's no surprise, but it is the kickoff to a larger campaign. Southwest uses the same logic here as it did with bag fees. Yes it makes other airlines a ton of money, but that means Southwest can stay on the side of the customer and use that as a differentiator. The airline expects it can win more business, more than enough to cover the loss in potential fee revenue.

But it is a tougher message, as I've written before. People know if they need to check a bag but they don't know if they need to change in advance. It's more of an insurance policy to not have a change fee, but that's not as valuable as no bag fees since people don't know if they'll need it.

It's also easier for other airlines to counter since Southwest makes customers pay up to full fare to standby for an earlier flight on the day of travel while other airlines allow it for a fee of only around $50, waived for the best customers. That may not be a change fee on Southwest, but it does end up costing the customer more. I asked if Southwest was going to revisit that policy and was told no, it's not.

So if airlines want to counter Southwest on this, they can. But that's ok. Southwest still thinks it's time to start talking.

Book Only on southwest.com You would think most of the US would know by now that unless you're going through a travel agent, the only way to book a flight on Southwest is via Southwest. And if you want to book online, that means Southwest.com is your only option. Apparently, Southwest has found that not enough people realize that, so it's time for another campaign to clarify.

Why is Southwest concerned about this? Well, see for yourself. The following shows the percent of respondents who think they can book Southwest flights on the following sites:
  • Southwest.com -- 85 percent
  • Expedia -- 32 percent
  • Travelocity -- 32 percent
  • Orbitz -- 28 percent
  • Kayak -- 14 percent
  • TripAdvisor -- 13 percent
  • Other -- 6 percent
I'm not sure if the bigger problem here is that so many people think they can find Southwest flights on other websites or the fact that 15 percent of people don't think they can book a ticket at Southwest.com. What exactly do they think they can do there?

But these results are concerning. While people do tend to check multiple sites when they buy tickets, if they assume that they'll see Southwest fares on the online travel agents, they might not ever bother going to Southwest.com. That's a lost opportunity and potentially a big one.

So Southwest is rolling out an ad which features employees singing an annoyingly catchy song saying that Southwest.com is the only place to buy a ticket. I actually don't find it nearly as catchy as efforts by other companies to get in your head (Burger King's evil flute-playing breakfast commercials come to mind), but it should help do the trick.

It's going to be hard to replicate the success of Bags Fly Free, but then again, having such great success means it's time to turn the focus elsewhere.

Related: Photo via Flickr user randomduck/CC 2.0
  • Brett Snyder

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