Southwest: the Classic Budget Airline
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amarchukov

Southwest: the Classic Budget Airline

01.02.2015 г. amarchukov
Southwest Airlines is famous for being the world's oldest budget airline, having been established in 1971. They effectively defined the main operating principles for this type of airline. The company's strategy hinged on offering cheap airfare. The affordable ticket prices, in turn, were achieved by reducing the number of complementary services, charging for non-complementary services and through high passenger volume.

Today, Southwest Airlines is the second largest airline in the world by passenger volume. The carrier's fleet consists of more than 700 planes, which yearly transport over 130 million people. In comparison, the sum total of passengers transported by all Russian airlines in 2013 is 85 million.

The flight described below between Las Vegas and Los Angeles took place in May 2012.


1. Booking Tickets and Checking In for the Flight

As is usually the case with budget airlines, the best and often only place to book tickets is on their official website: www.southwest.com
Southwest Airlines web site

Flights from Las Vegas to Los Angeles depart every hour. Twelve days before departure, almost all the flights were still available for just $57.
Southwest Airlines web site

Unlike many other budget airlines, this is the real price of the flight. No extra fees are automatically added at checkout, unless you would like to purchase extra services.

In my case, I only added the "Early Bird Check-In" service for $11. This service lets you board early and pick your seat in advance (otherwise, boarding and seating works on a first-come-first-served basis).
Southwest Airlines web site

An interesting quirk of Las Vegas is that you can check in to your flight directly from major hotels. Across from the cheap Motel 6, where I was staying for only $35 a night, was the "MGM Grand".
MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas

Right in the lobby of this hotel, next to the desk, were automated check-in kiosks that you could use to check in to any flight departing from Las Vegas.


The boarding pass is printed by the same kiosk, on a regular sheet of paper.
Southwest boarding pass


2. Las Vegas McCarran Airport

McCarran International Airport is very large. The next two photos were taken from inside a helicopter. Later, I'll write a review of helicopter tours around Las Vegas.
Las Vegas McCarran Airport

The airport is located right at the end of the famous Las Vegas Strip, a stretch of hotels and casinos.
Las Vegas McCarran Airport

The airport has 3 large terminals. Domestic flights leave from Terminal 1. Southwest Airlines has a large presence here.
Southwest check-in desks at Las Vegas airport
Southwest check-in desks at Las Vegas airport

A few years ago, Southwest started using a new logo featuring a heart, a reference to its new corporate program called "Love", whose goal is to emphasize Southwest's devotion to the highest quality of service for its clients. Per the literature, Southwest principles in pursuing this policy are those of warmth, friendliness, pride and spirit.
Southwest Love

Indeed, the performance of this airline's personnel was exemplary. I'll go into more detail towards the end of this review. For now I'll note the metamorphosis that the American transportation market has undergone in recent years. Nowadays traditional companies like American, Delta, and United are pursuing a policy of severe austerity and limited free services. The absence of free meals and free baggage allowance have become the norm for these supposedly full service carriers. Meanwhile, the budget airline Southwest, on the contrary, has only been making its services more genereous.

First of all, as I already mentioned, when buying a ticket online you don't get hit with any extra fees. Secondly, you can take 2 baggage items for free (other American airlines allow only single free baggage item). Furthermore, on Southwest flights you can get free water and nuts, and the cabins have both Wi-Fi and in-flight entertainment systems. To top it all off, many of the planes are equipped with new seats,

Anyway, back to McCarran Airport. Terminal 1 has 4 concourses with very long crossings between them. For example, the walk from Concourse B to Concourse C took me 15 minutes.
Las Vegas McCarran Airport

Waiting area in Concourse B.
Las Vegas McCarran Airport
Las Vegas McCarran Airport

This is our gate. My companion and I arrived late, however, after the plane had already taxied away from the terminal.
Las Vegas McCarran Airport

This didn't turned out to be a problem. Without charging us any extra fees, we were transferred to the next flight to Los Angeles, departing an hour later. As it happened, it was departing from a different concourse. Below are photos of the waiting area in Concourse C.
Las Vegas McCarran Airport

That wasn't the end of it, though. Due to our own inattentiveness, we also missed the second flight. Again, without any problems or fees we were transferred to the next flight after that, departing 1.5 hours later. I'm sure that Las Vegas to LA is a popular route, but I've never seen such frequent flights between any two destinations in any other country. In this sense, Southwest's service was more like a city bus than an airline: if you missed one, you can simply hop on the next one. It was interesting that our baggage, meanwhile, had left on the first flight and sat waiting for us on the carousel at the Los Angeles airport for the 3 hours it took to get there. Unlike most European airports, nobody's in a rush to take charge of unclaimed baggage.

Because of the double delay we had plenty of free time, so I took plenty of pictures in the airport.

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-300 (tail number N384SW) heading for the terminal.
Southwest Boeing 737 at Las Vegas airport

A different Boeing 737-700 being serviced after dropping off its passengers. Tail number N948WN.
Southwest Boeing 737 at Las Vegas airport

Several Southwest planes have special color schemes. This next Boeing 737-300 (N609SW), for example, features the flag of California. In the background is Terminal 2 of McCarran Airport.
Southwest Boeing 737 at Las Vegas airport

The turnaround time of a plane in the airport is only 25 minutes. A mere half an hour after the California-themed plane pulled up to the terminal, it was replaced by a different Southwest Airlines plane (a Boeing 737-700, tail number N487WN). Watching the ground crew at work is a little bit like watching the pit crew in a Formula 1 race.
Southwest Boeing 737 at Las Vegas airport

Directly behind the airport is the Strip. The first building on the right is the MGM Grand hotel where I had checked in for the flight.
Las Vegas McCarran Airport


3. Boeing 737-300 Airliner

Our flight took place on a Boeing 737-300 jet. The plane was manufactured in 1996 with the tail number N633SW. All these years it has been operated by Southwest Airlines. Like all Boeing 737s from the classic series which I saw in Las Vegas, the plane had winglets (up-turned ends of the wingtips).

The cabin only had economy class seats.
Passenger cabin of Southwest Boeing 737-300

The aforementioned Love logo was present here, too.
Passenger cabin of Southwest Boeing 737-300

The airline is working on a program to update its cabins with modern slim seats. I read about it in a booklet in the seat pocket.


Our plane already had the new seats. They left a good impression: leather, brightly-colored upholstery, reclining backs, and ample leg room.
Passenger cabin of Southwest Boeing 737-300
Passenger cabin of Southwest Boeing 737-300
Passenger cabin of Southwest Boeing 737-300

The baggage shelves and overhead paneling were standard for the classic Boeing 737s.
Passenger cabin of Southwest Boeing 737-300
Passenger cabin of Southwest Boeing 737-300

In the 1970s, one of Southwest Airlines' cost-cutting innovations was that instead of the traditional hot meals, it offered its passengers only peanuts and water. Complementary nuts and water have remained one of the company's signature offerings.
Frash and nuts from Southwest

The selection of refreshments was pretty large. They're listed in the brochure on the photo below, in the upper left corner. For an extra fee, you can also get alcoholic drinks: 5 dollars for a can of beer, a small bottle of wine or a shot (1.8 oz) of liquor (in the middle on the photo below).


The completed contents of the seat pocket, by the way, looked something like this:


After only an hour's flight, our plane arrived in Los Angeles.
Southwest Boeing 737 at Los Angeles airport

Inside the air terminal. Passengers disembark into and board from the same waiting area.
Los Angeles Airport


4. Southwest Personnel

More than anything else about Southwest Airlines, I liked the company's personnel. The warmth and friendliness that Southwest touts, I got to experience firsthand. And I'm not talking about some artificial attitude or the openness of Americans in general. Southwest's company rules are biased strongly towards their customers to start with, lacking the arbitrary regulations and prohibitions that so many airline companies seem to love, and Southwest employees literally treat you like an old acquaintance.

Here are a few examples.

This was the lady manning the boarding gate. I wanted to surreptitiously take a picture of her for this review. Surreptitiously, because airline employees are often unhappy about getting photographed at work. Upon spotting my camera, the lady gave me a huge smile instead. I know from personal experience that in Russia, she would've been threatening to call security on me, while in Europe, I would've gotten a long lecture on violating peoples' right to privacy.
Southwest Airlines Personnel

Another Southwest employee. This was the one who transferred us to another flight after we missed our first one.
Southwest Airlines Personnel

The senior flight attendant on our flight. I was probably testing the crew's patience by running around the cabin with a photo camera after the rest of the passengers had disembarked, considering that the crew only had 20 minutes before the next batch of passengers boarded. However, nobody on the crew even seemed to notice me, let alone tell me to stop my lengthy photo-shoot. By the way, with Southwest, it is the flight attendants themselves who clean up the cabin and prepare the plane for the return flight, instead of a dedicated cabin crew.
Southwest Airlines Personnel

And this is the captain of our aircraft. Likewise, he didn't object to my photographs, and came across as cheerful and pleasant, just like all the other Southwest Airlines employees I had run into.
Southwest Airlines Personnel
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