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I Heart Southwest: When Airlines Take a Community Approach

Written by Caitlin Struhs | on February 15, 2016 at 9:30 AM


I’m a loyal Southwest customer - our relationship began in my broke college days as a means to find cheap flights for visiting family and friends. It was a small airline with nicer-than-normal customer reps available when I had to reschedule.

But over the years, my devotion to this small, quirky transportation company has grown from convenience to brand loyalty and a real sense of community.

Maddie Grant’s recent culture chat post on how Southwest is getting ahead with culture while other airlines just get it wrong is spot-on: Southwest treats me like a friend. Maybe I’m a sucker for wanting an airline that gets me home on time AND tells me funny jokes in-flight. Maybe I’d have a bigger variety of perks if I stuck with a traditional airline. But it’s the culture that keeps me coming back for more.

How an airline builds community

Southwest has some impressive stats to its name right now:

  • World’s largest low-cost carrier
  • 46,000 employees operating more than 3,800 flights per day (December 2014)
  • Carries the most domestic passengers of any U.S. airline
  • Scheduled service to 97 destinations in 40 states, Puerto Rico and abroad for 2016

These are a testament to Southwest’s progress, but how did it grab its loyal customers’ attention in the first place? Why do I fly almost exclusively with Southwest? They’ve been innovating in the customer experience space since the start.

Got a website? Did you know in 1995, Southwest became one of the first airlines to have a website? It was forward-thinking to push customers to check out their schedules, route maps and more online. Recently, Nielsen/Netratings reported Southwest.com was the largest airline site in terms of unique visitors.

What’s your slogan mean for me? I like a company or community that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but does put serious focus on customer satisfaction. Here’s a run-down of some of Southwest’s best slogans representing just that balance:

  • Love Is Still Our Field
  • Just Plane Smart
  • The Somebody Else Up There Who Loves You
  • You’re Now Free to Move About The Country
  • That’s Transfarency
  • If It Matters To You, It Matters To Us

But are you giving back? Volunteering is almost always at the heart of a strong community or company. Southwest puts its money where its volunteering is, as the official commercial airline of the Honor Flight Network. This organization brings aging and ailing veterans to visit the national monuments in Washington, D.C.

How Southwest wins me over every time

I’m not trying to convince you to drop your [insert other airline name here] rewards program and start bowing down to the quirky queues, in-flight puns and branded peanuts. But I do see a strong community-building connection between the online communities I peruse every day and this airline who obviously puts its flyers first.

Here’s what it comes down to for me, and where I really see community shining through:

Booking (or Becoming an Engaged Member)

Whether I’m booking a weekend trip on the website or calling in to reschedule my return flight, the “onboarding” or “sign-up” process is always quick and straightforward. In the off chance something goes wrong? I have easy access to customer service reps or resources online to get me through a change.

Boarding (or Navigating the Community)

Common phrases I hear from Southwest passengers new and old when we’re lining up in the distinctive A,B,C/1-60 queue: “What number are you?” and “Oh don’t worry, we’re all going to the same place!” It’s friendly chit-chat, and it puts everyone on a relatable, equal playing field.

It was a calculated risk for Southwest to buck the system and change how airlines boarded flights, but it didn’t hesitate and “opted in” all passengers for this new process. And it works.

In-Flight Entertainment (or Strong Community Content)

Flying isn’t really fun anymore - tight seating, stale snacks, battles for the arm rest, someone’s always hacking up a lung - but it doesn’t have to be completely miserable. I once sat through a 90 minute trip with a flight attendant who spoke( and joked) in character as Glenn Quagmire from Family Guy. That might not be your show of choice, but that flight attendant saw an opportunity to revamp his normal content and try to make flying fun again.

If you’re more of a lurker, pop the headphones in and check out the free TV, movies and more available on most flights these days.

Customer Loyalty & Rewards (or Your Community’s MVPs)

Over the years I’ve increased my flying time with Southwest, and reaped the rewards. As a rewards member, I get points for flights booked and from using their credit card. My husband and I even accumulated enough points in one year to reach companion pass status: every time he books a flight, I get a free one.

Would this matter if the system was constantly falling apart? There was a time years back when I had a few delays and messy scheduling issues close together. I wasn’t a rewards member - I wasn’t visibly special to Southwest. But when I got on the phone to plead for a flight change amidst bad weather and job obligations back home, the customer service rep spoke to me like I was the only person with this problem. We talked like old friends - “It must’ve been really fun to get back to visit your parents” and “Today has been crazy - I wish I could do more to fix the schedules, I’m looking for a loophole as we speak!”

Honesty, transparency and talking through the problem - sounds a bit like a well-oiled community.


What services/products/communities do you heart? Who’s getting it right for you? Share with us below!

Topics: Online Community Management, Marketing, Customer Engagement, Customer Experience, Online Community

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