Southwest Airlines: a Strategy Perspective

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Background:

Southwest Airlines is the largest airline measured by number of passengers carried each year within the United States. It is also known as a ‘discount airline’ compared with its large rivals in the industry. Rollin King and Herb Kelleher founded Southwest Airlines on June 18, 1971. Its first flights were from Love Field in Dallas to Houston and San Antonio, short hops with no-frills service and a simple fare structure. The airline began with one simple strategy: “If you get your passengers to their destinations when they want to get there, on time, at the lowest possible fares, and make darn sure they have a good time doing it, people will fly your airline.” This approach has been the key to Southwest’s success. Currently, Southwest serves about 60 cities (in 31 states) with 71 million total passengers carried (in 2004) and with a total operating revenue of $6.5 billion. Southwest is traded publicly under the symbol “LUV” on NYSE.

Facts:

* The first major airline to fly a single type of aircraft (Boeing 737s)

* The first major airline to offer ticketless travel system wide including a frequent flier program based on number of trips and not number of miles flown.

* The first airline to offer a profit-sharing program to its Employees (instituted in 1973).

* The first major airline to develop a Web site and offer online booking. In 2001, about 40 percent ($2.1 billion) of its passenger revenue was generated through online bookings at www.southwest.com. Southwest's cost per booking via the Internet is about $1, compared to a cost per booking through travel agents of $6 to $8.

Key competitive advantages:

* Low Operational costs / High Operational Efficiency

* Award winning customer service

* Human Resource practices / Work culture

Operations Analysis – Competitive Dimensions:

Southwest clearly has a distinct advantage compared to other airlines in the industry by executing an effective and efficient operations strategy that forms an important pillar of its overall corporate strategy. Given below are some competitive dimensions that will be studied in this paper.

1. Operational Costs and Efficiency

2. Customer Service

3. Employee/Labor Relations

4. Technology

1. Operational Costs and Efficiency

After all, the airline industry overall is in shambles. But, how does Southwest Airlines stay profitable? Southwest Airlines has the lowest costs and strongest balance sheet in its industry, according to its chairman Kelleher. The two biggest operating costs for any airline are – labor costs (approx 40%) followed by fuel costs (approx 18%). Some other ways that Southwest is able to keep their operational costs low is - flying point-to-point routes, choosing secondary (smaller) airports, carrying consistent aircrafts, maintaining high aircraft utilization, encouraging e-ticketing etc.

Labor Costs

The labor costs for Southwest typically accounts for about 37% of its operating costs. Perhaps the most critical element of the successful low-fare airline business model is achieving significantly higher labor productivity. According to a recent HBS Case Study, southwest airlines is the “most heavily unionized” US airline (about 81% of its employees belong to an union) and its salary rates are considered to be at or above average compared to the US airline industry. The low-fare carrier labor advantage is in much more flexible work rules that allow cross-utilization of virtually all employees (except where disallowed by licensing and safety standards). Such cross-utilization and a long-standing culture of cooperation among labor groups translate into lower unit labor costs. At Southwest in 4th quarter 2000, total labor expense per available seat mile (ASM) was more than 25% below that of United and American, and 58% less than US Airways.

Carriers like Southwest have a tremendous cost advantage over network airlines simply because their workforce generates more output per...
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