Earlier this week, I wrote the following Op-Ed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The newspaper asked me to write about what effect Southwest’s arrival in Atlanta would have on business travelers. My take? Most Atlanta business travelers are too heavily invested in SkyMiles and their “complex” relationship with Delta to give Southwest a try– so there won’t be that big of an effect.
Take a read and let us know if you agree…or not. (Here’s a link to the column on AJC.com)
Even with the exciting entry of a respected airline like Southwest Airlines, most frequent business travelers in Atlanta will continue to fly Delta Air Lines despite their complex relationship with our hometown carrier.
Atlanta business travelers love Delta for its deep southern roots. They appreciate being able to catch a Delta nonstop to just about every major city in the world, getting Porsche rides from the plane to the parking lot or relaxing in plush Sky Clubs.
But most of all, they love Delta for its SkyMiles program, and the dream of “free” travel and special recognition. Despite whining about the dearth of upgrades and difficulty finding award seats, they keep going back for more—and in fact go out of their way to earn those SkyMiles that they love and loath.
So for now, despite mixed feelings about Delta, frequent flyers in Atlanta will likely stick with it due to a mix of loyalty, inertia and fear of the unknown.
At the top of frequent flyers’ list of fears about Southwest is its so-called “cattle call” boarding process. Southwest does not allow advance seat selection. But those traveling on more expensive, less restricted tickets, elite level Rapid Rewards members and those who have paid an extra $10 “early bird” fee board first, and can lay claim to the best seats and overhead bin space.
But frequent flyers like the security of being able to choose their seat ahead of time. The boarding process at Delta is familiar, yet frustrating in Atlanta since so many elite-level passengers can skip to the front of the line, which feels like a cattle call. But at least there is no uncertainty around where they’ll be sitting—and frequent travelers don’t like uncertainty.
Then there’s the fear of getting on board a plane without wi-fi. While it’s aiming for fleet-wide wi-fi, Southwest has it on only 150 of 550 planes and makes no guarantees regarding availability. On the upside, wi-fi connections run a flat $5 per flight, regardless of flight length. But Atlanta-based business travelers have been spoiled by the availability of in-flight wi-fi on nearly 100% of Delta and AirTran flights. That certainty is increasingly important in our “always connected” business world.
Business travelers have plenty of other fears about straying over to Southwest: They fear starting off at the bottom rung at Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, which is based more on how much you spend than how many miles you fly. With Southwest’s intention of eliminating AirTran’s popular business class, they worry about losing the ability to upgrade (or afford) to fly at the front of the plane on long flights out west. Time-deprived executives will be irritated at the extra step of checking Southwest.com every time they want to do a complete fare comparison, since its fares are not listed anywhere else.
But despite those fears, the fast-growing population of more independent business travelers who are entrepreneurs, freelancers or those who work for small and mid-sized companies will be the early adopters of Southwest. They are the ones for whom Delta’s $150 fee to change a ticket comes right out of their wallet, or shrinking per diem. (Southwest does not charge change fees.) They are the independent sales reps who must travel with a couple of suitcases of samples and don’t want to pay Delta’s $120 fee to check two bags roundtrip. (No bag fees on Southwest.) The ones who just want quick, dependable and cheap transportation and don’t care much about airport lounges, lie-flat seats to London or what type of metallic card is in their wallet.
So Atlanta-based business travelers shouldn’t expect any major changes when Southwest arrives at Hartsfield-Jackson next week, especially those with an expense account to fall back on. But if you’re an independent, budget-focused, or an up-and-comer without a big investment in Delta SkyMiles, you’ll find a fresh new option to consider on your next flight.
Agree or disagree? Are you too invested in SkyMiles to give the new kid in town a go? Or will you welcome Southwest with open arms…and open wallet? Please leave your comments below!