The Tale Of Two Airlines: Southwest And American

Yesterday I was struck by the contrast between two pieces of news; an ad in the USA Today from the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SAPA) and a new fee from American Airlines. 

First of all, I found a full page ad in the USA Today which was a letter from the SAPA to Herb Kelleher, the newly retired chairman of the airline. Here’s some of what the pilots had to say: 

As you step down from the SWA Board of Directors, the pilots of Southwest Airlines would like to thank you, Herb, for 38 years of positively outrageous service to our Company and our pilots. It has been an honor and a privilege.

I also read yesterday that American Airlines has decided to impose a $15 fee for the first bag that passengers check. This announcement comes two weeks after announcing a $25 fee for the second bag that customers check. Wow, that will be a customer experience nightmare in so many ways: slowing down the check-in process as customers find out the news and have to pay the fees, slowing down the boarding process as more people try and find space for their luggage in the overheads, and pushing more luggage off the plane when overheads get filled up (once again slowing the boarding process).

In addition to this news, I thought there was an interesting contrast with a full page ad in USA Today from the American Airlines Pilot Association that I found about a month ago. Here’s some of what American’s pilots had to say at that time: 

We’re embarrassed that so many passengers are inconvenienced and dissatisfied and hope you’ll accept our apologies for our airline’s unreliability… Due to mismanagement, our airline doesn’t have enough workers to run dependably…

The bottom line: Which airline do you think is best equipped to deliver a great customer experience?


Written by 

I am an experience management transformist, helping organizations improve business results by engaging the hearts and minds of their customers, employees, and partners. My "job" is Head of the Qualtrics XM Institute. The Institute is still being established, but our goal is to help organizations around the world thrive by mastering Experience Management (XM). As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. Prior to joining Qualtrics, I was managing partner of Temkin Group (leading CX research, advisory, and training firm), co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (, and a VP at Forrester Research. I'm a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Check out my LinkedIn profile:

7 thoughts on “The Tale Of Two Airlines: Southwest And American”

  1. Southwest – without a doubt. I think AA’s future is bleak – this $15 charge for the first bag is really ticking off a lot of people, far more so than any 2nd bag charges that are out there.

  2. Former American Airlines passengers will simply just move to AA’s competitors in the airline industry, like Southwest Airlines. The market forces, hypothetically, should correct everything. Once AA begins to receive fewer customers, they will make the proper adjustments and drop the excessive fees so that they stay competitive and don’t go out of business. Right now, it appears as if Southwest Airlines, as opposed to American Airlines, is delivering the better customer experience.

  3. This is an object lesson on the law of unintended consequences, or what Milton Friedman called “externalities.” To quote a recent news story, fuel prices are killing airlines. That is, airlines without the ability to hedge fuel (SW does). The cost base is too high and the ability to sustain higher prices too weak. AA is betting that they can keep the passengers with market “ticket prices” plus the fees. I don’t think they can. AA’s only hope is that all the legacy carriers fall in line (especially United, their Chicago hub-mate). The externalities of this decision are poor customer perceptions; the objectives may include shrinking traffic to justify service cuts and staff retirements/reductions. Shrink the airline in order to save it.

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