MIAMI — On Wednesday, April 15, Southwest Airlines unveiled its newest special livery: “Missouri One” which is the latest addition to its fleet designed to celebrate its service to the “Show Me State.” The plane, gracefully striped in red, white, and blue, sports the state seal of Missouri along its body as a tribute to the state, a key player in Southwest’s route network. Within Missouri, Southwest flies to Kansas City (MCI) and St. Louis (STL), both of which hold significant importance across its broader network.
Just a day earlier, Southwest made some noise by revealing new seating to be featured on the inside of its 737-800 and 737-MAX planes. Adjustable headrests, increased legroom, and (perhaps most notably) widened seat width headline the new design. Collectively, these two events reinforce Southwest’s traditionally bold and pioneering attitude that differentiates it from the pack of airlines.
Southwest Airlines originated in the state of Texas during the early 1970’s, initially flying a triangle between three Texas cities, Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas (where the airline maintains its headquarters to this day). Legend claims that co-founders Herb Kelleher and Rollin King drafted the idea on a cocktail napkin. The airline’s quirky and often extremely blunt approach helped it gain steam in its early years, aided by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which allowed it to compete with legacy carriers on inter-state routes.
In particular, Herb Kelleher, a noted aficionado of Wild Turkey (not exactly customary of airline CEO’s), attracted the public’s eye on multiple occasions, providing the airline a positive stream of publicity. He famously arm wrestled Kurt Herwald with Stevens Aviation for the right to keep a popular advertising slogan (“Just Plane Smart”) in a match known as the “Malice in Dallas.” Although Kelleher lost the match, Herwald allowed Southwest the rights. Both companies benefitted from good press and from evading a pricey lawsuit. The incident supported Southwest’s reputation as distant from the pack, an image which the airline sticks by today.
In a sea of similarly painted aircraft, Southwest’s entire fleet stands apart, coated predominantly in an unusual blue tint. The addition of “Missouri One” to its fleet represents the tenth aircraft Southwest has dedicated to a particular state. The liveries an airline chooses represent a very immediate visual snapshot of the overall brand it wishes to communicate. Not just any airline will tattoo something so emblematic to a state across the body of a Boeing 737. Adorning a plane with Missouri’s image, Southwest continues to reinforce its non-conformity to industry standards.
While some criticize the airline as unprofessional, this strategy generally benefits the airline tangibly as well. Southwest hopes its marketing strategy will engage the local audience, ultimately translating into more revenue from passengers attracted to a more lively experience than what other airlines typically provide.
Most airlines adopting a “hub-and-spoke” flight network – one in which the airline shuttles passengers to a central hub and then feeds them to their final destinations – tailor their marketing focus to just a few cities. Southwest’s attempt to capture a more broad audience just makes for good business sense, and strengthens its historically revolutionary perception. The dedication of “Missouri One” only further evidences that Southwest plans to stick with the pillars by which it was built.
Likewise, revealing new seats for its larger jets also bolsters the image of Southwest as divorced from the industry. In particular, Southwest demonstrates a responsiveness to customer feedback, an area in which many other carriers lag behind. When the airline first introduced the “Evolve” interior – that which its planes currently carry – many fliers expressed disapproval for the arrangement, claiming that the seats skimped on comfort for the purpose of shoving more passengers into the plane. With more heavily padded seats, Southwest clearly aims to address targeted customer feedback.
The seats also made some waves for adding nearly an extra inch in width from the current design. This speaks especially loudly to Southwest’s reputation as deviating from the beaten path, since the dominant trend overtaking the industry seems to constantly trim space from passengers. Airlines, as illustrated by the “knee defender” incident, have garnered public distaste recently for continually making flying more uncomfortable to add additional revenue to their bottom lines. Southwest proves that it weighs customer satisfaction along with profit in its moves.
The American Customer Satisfaction Index, released earlier this month, pinpointed “seat comfort” as “the most despised part of flying,” condemning it with a score of 65 out of 100. Southwest’s revised seating attempts to respond to dynamic customer demands, addressing what customers prioritize most. Catering to what customers value functions as a sound business principle, one which Southwest definitely takes to heart.
Of course, these two events hardly demonstrate much on their own, and one should take caution against extracting too much from each individually. But both “Missouri One” and the new interior reflect larger trends conducive to the customer-friendly image Southwest has purposefully constructed over the years. One could point to a number of other examples – from the airline’s resistance to charging for bags, to its distinct open-seating policy, to its colorful “Heart” livery – that all solidify Southwest as an laudable outlier. Paired with the airline’s storied history, both reaffirm Southwest’s image as a quirky yet fun alternative to the other mainstays within the industry.
Southwest Airlines continues to buck the trends characteristic of the airline industry. Its overwhelming success with this game plan supports the idea that, sometimes, being different just might put you on top.