Freedom, guesswork and Southwest Airlines

Posted: Aug 20, 2002 12:00 AM
While the U.S. airline industry wallows in gloom, some observations about the free marketplace spring to mind. The six biggest American carriers, from October through June, lost $6.9 billion collectively. American Airlines is laying off workers and reconfiguring its whole approach to service. US Airways is in bankruptcy court. United Airlines warns it, too, may head in that direction. Isn't anybody making money off air travel? Well, yes. For one, Southwest Airlines is. Freshly disembarked from a Southwest roundtrip, I'd like to suggest why: Southwest supplies that which a big chunk of the traveling public desires. Whenever I am called on, as a frequent Southwest customer, to appraise Southwest's formula for success, I invariably reply, "They just get it done." I could easily elaborate: They get it done efficiently -- with good humor and a measure of grace. The Southwest business plan is well-enough known. Quick turnarounds plus the same aircraft model on all routes plus peanuts rather than overcooked chicken equals low fares and popularity. Not all travelers, least of all lovers of the amenities, are seduced by the Southwest style. That's fine. Each to his own. Enough are seduced, even so, to provide Southwest with consistent profits just when the air industry's giants are yelping with pain. As is often the case in life, money isn't the whole story. Hardly less important to Southwest's image is the helpfulness and bonhomie of the employees -- like the cheerful flight attendant my wife and I swapped jokes with the other day as we sought Just the Right Two Seats. I love flying Southwest at Halloween, partly because of the zany, off-the-wall notions to which the occasion gives birth in employee imaginations. I recall the attendant who, as we boarded in Houston one Oct. 31, popped out of an overhead bin, wearing witch's get-up and crying "Boo!" Zaniness isn't the whole thing, either. Shortly after a disagreeable and infuriating experience in Miami with, shall we say, an international carrier, I put my wife aboard a Southwest flight to West Texas. From the ticket counter to the security check-in, it was just one helping hand after another. Us -- grateful for service? Only undyingly so. Enough of that. Today's tract is not be confused with a lace-trimmed valentine to Southwest Airlines (in which, by the way, I own not even one share of stock). A word -- as I indicated at the start -- about the marketplace. The truth to which regulators rarely face up is that the marketplace works. Not just some of the time -- all the time. Not only does the marketplace work, it is always at work, trying to figure out what customers want and need. What goes on in the airline marketplace is the very visible, very painful search for what the traveling public wants in 2002. We need reminding, amid all the job cuts, that the search itself is a good and clarifying thing. Marketplaces are vital beasts -- restless and ever-changing. Companies to whom the customers grow cold have two choices: to go out of business or do business differently. For government, the necessity is to stand aside and let what happens, happen. The spectacle of job and profit loss can be awful, but the loss of jobs -- indeed, the disappearance of whole companies -- is part of the quest to discover the marketplace's needs. Not every guess will be right or profitable; what counts is the freedom to guess. A time could come, theoretically, when the Southwest Airlines model grows stale and stagnant, when customers start trickling away to providers more in tune with changed needs. The management of Southwest, under such circumstances, could wring its hands and call for a bailout. I would be disposed on the basis of experience to bet against Southwest's doing any such weak-kneed thing. The Southwest model is really the American model: Build that better mousetrap; watch the mice, then the customers, come swarming.