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Southwest Ads Shift From Bag Fees to Change Fees, and Face a Tougher Sell

For months now, Southwest (LUV) has focused its ad campaigns on touting how the airline has no fees for checking the first two bags for each passenger. Anyone with a TV has seen the effective campaign, but now Southwest is shifting to attack a new fee. Forget about bag fees, it's time for the attack on change fees. This one is going to be a harder sell.

I first got wind of this when a casting call came into my inbox from Kaplan Casting. The message (which you can read in its entirety here (pdf)) read like this:

Have you recently flown and had to pay change fees?
Maybe your entire family was charged, maybe your pet too? Are you mad about it?
We want to hear your stories.
We're casting REAL TESTIMONIALS from individuals, families or business people, real folks who were charged fees when changing airline tickets. Ages 18-60yrs old all ethnicities.
There was more, but you get the gist. No airline name was mentioned for the ad, but Southwest spokesperson Christi McNeill confirmed that it was the airline behind this. This email came to my Cranky Concierge air travel assistance account, and that's smart. Not only does it help them cast a commercial, but it gives them some buzz and brings the topic to the forefront with people who are constantly dealing with travelers.

So what's the message going to be? Southwest has done wonders with its bag fee campaign, but now it wants to focus on the fact that it charges no change fee while other airlines charge up to $150. This is a tougher selling point to get across for a couple of reasons.

First, people know if they need to check a bag in advance, but most people don't know if they'll need to make a change in advance. Sure, they like to have the flexibility, but how much will they be willing to pay for that when they don't even know if they need it?

Back in the late 90s when I worked at America West, we lowered our change fees to zero to match Southwest on some routes out of Phoenix. We ran a targeted campaign to get the word out to business clients, and in the end, there wasn't enough revenue generated to justify the loss of change fee revenue. The change fee came back.

This isn't a perfect comparison, especially since fees were hardly considered as important back then, but it's still a good point. Change fees, or lack thereof, are a tough sell.

There's another problem with this campaign. The other airlines can counter it fairly effectively. While Southwest doesn't charge a change fee, it also doesn't allow you to stand by for an earlier flight on the day of travel. Many people have been stuck paying hundreds of dollars to buy up to the full fare on the day of travel, even though technically no "change fee" applied.

In the past, other airlines would let you fly standby for free. That's changed over time, and now most have changed the policy to eliminate standby but instead give you a confirmed seat on an earlier flight that day for only $50. This is usually cheaper than paying up to a higher fare on Southwest.

So this sell isn't nearly as easy as bag fees, but it's good to see the airline trying. I've long argued that a small change fee would be good for Southwest, but if it isn't going to add one, then it might as well be singing about it from the rafters. Let's see if it's as convincing as the bag fee ads have been. I'm skeptical.


Photo via Southwest Airlines