Is Southwest Airlines’ marketing strategy putting passengers in danger?

Southwest Airlines knows it can’t compete with other airlines on high-class service and doesn’t try. Instead, its known for keeping costs down with its no-thrills service but still understands that the definition of brand value is no longer just about price. It’s actually the sum of your functional, emotional and participative benefits divided by price.

For that very reason, the airline offers a few highly useful perks to consumers who don’t mind paying a premium.

  • Early boarding.
  • Which also means you get the seat of your choice, which will often be the exit row because those seats have the most legroom.
  • Free drink coupons for business select passengers, who get to board first and usually take the most comfortable seat in the exit row.

Uniqueness and pricing authority

Those three perks are examples of how Southwest possesses unique functional, emotional and participative benefits. The more unique the brand, the stronger pricing authority the brand will have with consumers.

SEE ALSO: 3 ways the millennial foodie is changing America’s food industry

Company size alone doesn’t determine pricing authority. Uniqueness along with factors like direct and indirect competitive alternatives are the primary factors that influence pricing strategy.

Safety first or profit first?

As a heavy business traveler out of Kansas City, I’ve witnessed the airline’s successful strategy firsthand. And although it’s a great marketing tactic, I’d argue that the airline isn’t doing the majority of its passengers any favors when it comes to safety.

For example, on my recent flight from Chicago to Philadelphia, the flight attendant served four Heinekens to a passenger sitting in the exit row, which seats the passengers who must help others if the plane goes down.

While she was preparing his fifth beer, I got up to use the restroom and asked her to stop serving him. I’m no prude, but the available “drinking time” is far less than the flight time as we aren’t served during take off and landing. At most, this is an hour after we clear 10,000 feet and before we start to descend. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have the person in charge of opening the airplane door three sheets to the wind.

Then just over a month later, “Frank” was flying next to me in the exit row from Dallas to New Orleans and managed to have several drinks on the short trip. In both cases, the passengers had been drinking BEFORE they boarded but would have likely been legally drunk even if they hadn’t had a drink prior to boarding.

After the first flight, I called SWA and the representative indicated the company would take some kind of action, but she wasn’t specific.

“Sure,” I thought.

After the second flight, I went to the operations agent on the ground to offer my concern. She said she would do some kind of followup, but she took no notes, so I’m guessing she did nothing.

Southwest told The Business Journals in a statement that its exit row requirements are in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

“There is no policy against serving alcohol to passengers seated in the exit row,” the airline said. “However, for a passenger to remain in an exit seat, they must meet exit-seat criteria and be able to perform the required functions. Any passenger whom the flight attendant determines does not meet exit-seat criteria, or who can’t perform the required functions, will be expeditiously re-accommodated in a non-exit seat.

The airline also said its flight attendants are trained to look for signs of intoxication and have procedures in place to monitor alcohol consumption onboard our aircraft.

“Offering drink coupons is not a novel idea nor is it intended to encourage drinking, it’s simply an offering customers may or may not choose to use,” the airline said.

Joe Brancatelli, The Business Journals’ business travel columnist, noted that Southwest has a strong safety record and “is hardly the only airline that bundles drinks in a ticket.”

Good customer service or price strategy?

There is a difference between providing drink service to customers in order to “delight” them and creating a pricing strategy that might lead to an intoxicated person sitting in the exit row. Is SWA blind to this, or putting profit ahead of safety, or maybe they just don’t think it’s a problem?

SWA representatives said they would take some kind of action, but I have heard nothing after reporting two incidents. Even a quick thank you note for bringing this to their attention would lead me to believe that they may be listening.

So, Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest airlines, are you listening?

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