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On Budget Airlines in the US

Apr 09, 2014 | 3 minutes read

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Europe’s ultimate budget airline, Ryanair, has been the carrier of choice for much of my European travel. I’ve flown multiple times to Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin and Paris – all for less than the price of a nice meal.

I say I’ve flown these places – really, I’ve flown to within two hours drive of these cities, and figured it out from there – Ryanair isn’t known for renting stands at premium airports. In fact, they’ve taken using the old part of terminals where possible, and rejuvenating WW2 airforce bases across Europe. Combining this with their no-frills approach to air travel, and Ryanair brings the cost-per-seat to unprecedented lows – savings which are passed onto their customers.

Here in the United States, no comparable carrier exists. The largest budget airline, Southwest, shares many similarities with Ryanair. They don’t assign seating, but rather offer priority boarding at a premium.
There’s also some glaring differences. When booking a flight, Southwest Airlines doesn’t try to sell you travel insurance or a Samsonite Ryanair-Approved piece of hand luggage. They don’t charge a surcharge for booking without the Southwest Credit Card. They don’t charge for changes to your flight, and they don’t charge extra to set in an emergency exit.
Staff are incredibly helpful – I recently watched a hostess assist a helpless passenger load a clearly oversize piece of luggage into the overhead bins, apologising because it was difficult to fit.
Flights include two pieces of hand luggage, and TWO items of checked luggage. There’s a drinks service, and small snacks are free.
Flying Southwest is a different world, and it’s all so utterly ridiculous. The truth is, Southwest isn’t a budget airline at all.

So why is it the US market isn’t served with a budget airline? One possible theory I’ve pondered is the ingrained priority of customer service that the American consumer expects. The service industry in the US has become so dependant on tipping that the friendly (if perhaps a little insincere) customer service is unrivalled. This extends to air travel – with one major exception. US Airways, a premium airline in price alone, are renowned for their unfriendly staff – their air host staff an army of angry blue-rinse.

I was interested to read recently that Southwest, has double the Cost-Per-Available-Seat of it’s European counterpart[1]. Their flight prices certainly reflect this, with remarkably few discounted deals available. The unfortunate truth is Southwest’s operating costs are far too high, and to save money, Southwest needs to drop their customer-first approach.
Instead, taking a leaf from Ryanair’s book, they need to try the treat-the-customer-like-dirt™  approach. Strictly one piece of hand luggage, which must fit in a cage fit for a chihuahua – failure to is comply punishable by death. No more free flight changes – introduce some outrageous surcharges.
The changes don’t stop with the customer – staff too. Southwest staff are far too happy – pay them less, and make them work longer hours. Stop servicing the aircraft so often – you can always lease a new one next year. Stop flying planes so full of fuel – it’s too expensive. Fill with the bare minimum to arrive at destination – also a great way to jump the landing slot queue with ATC. More maydays, less late days!

While most of what I’ve suggested is strictly satirical, it’s an approach which has worked for Ryanair thus far, an airline with few delays and an excellent safety record.
The US market is crying out for a  true budget carrier, and Southwest needs to take some lessons from the best, before they quickly become irrelevant.

[1] https://flightfox.com/tradecraft/polyester-airlines-europe-vs-america