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Southwest Wages a Battle for Milwaukee in... Oshkosh?

I received a note from Southwest (LUV) a couple weeks ago asking if I would be interested in joining the airline on its visit to the EAA AirVenture 2010 in Oshkosh. The offer seemed strange. I couldn't figure out why Southwest would be going to a show that doesn't have a commercial air travel focus at all. Eventually, however, it dawned on me. Southwest is opening another front in the marketing war to win the hearts and minds of cheeseheads everywhere.

Milwaukee has been a hotbed of competition over the last few years. The city used to be the stronghold of Midwest Airlines, but as that airline weakened, others stepped in. AirTran (AAI) saw the weakness in Milwaukee and, looking for a way into the greater Chicago market, tried to buy Midwest. That failed, but it didn't deter AirTran from going it alone. Northwest (now Delta (DAL)) forged a partnership and tried to solidify Milwaukee as its own under the Midwest brand, but that plan soured quickly as Midwest's losses mounted further.

Southwest saw a weakened Midwest and liked the idea of bracketing Chicagoland with its Midway operation, so it moved in to the airport as well. Ultimately, Republic Airways (RJET) purchased Midwest and merged it with Frontier, saving the airline and creating a viable competitor. What once was an opportunity became an all-out bloodbath for the airlines.

Delta decided not to challenge seriously in Milwaukee, but Southwest, Frontier, and AirTran are all duking it out. I don't think you'll find anyone who thinks there's not too much service in the market, but nobody wants to give up. It's a war.

For Southwest, it's not exactly a typical market entry. Southwest likes to come in and be the savior of low fare travel, but in Milwaukee, there are two other low fare carriers already there. Without a huge fare advantage, Southwest has fallen back on one of its other favorite strategies -- becoming a part of the community.

This means Southwest goes out there and sponsors all sort of events, performs charity work, etc. But Southwest isn't the only game in town doing this. Frontier is trying to hold on to Midwest's persona as the hometown airline while AirTran has aggressively been marketing as well, even going as far as painting an airplane in Milwaukee Brewers colors without actually being the official airline of the club (that's Frontier). So it's become a game of cat and mouse, with each trying to out-endear itself to the community.

Southwest's latest effort was to charter a plane in to Oshkosh for a day at AirVenture. Not sure what AirVenture is? It's a huge fly-in event in Oshkosh that has been the premier get together in the aviation world for years. But it's not commercial aviation. Heck, it's run by the EAA which describes itself this way.

EAA is the only association that offers the fun and camaraderie of sharing your passion for participating in the flying, building, and restoring of recreational aircraft with the most passionate community of aviation enthusiasts.
So why the heck did Southwest go? For Southwest, there are several benefits.
  1. Southwest invited media and others to take the charter from Chicago to Oshkosh. This gets them positive coverage.
  2. Southwest allowed tours of the airplane all day. For Wisconsinites who have never been on Southwest, it's an opportunity to see the interior, which is actually much nicer than many might expect.
  3. People in the aviation community are key influencers. People always turn to their friends and families when looking for air travel advice. This visit reaches those people. Even if it's not commercial, people on one side often participate in the other.
  4. There's very little lost by Southwest here. The flight took place on Saturday, and Southwest runs a reduced Saturday schedule. So the plane was likely free at Midway anyway, and it's just a short hop up.
Is it worth it? This is one of those moves that falls in the "hard to measure" bucket, but Southwest has successfully used these sorts of events for years. It's just another page in the playbook, though making Milwaukee a solidly profitable operation in the face of so much competition is going to require a lot more than this.

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Photo via Flickr user Mike Miley
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