When Southwest Airlines acquired Air Tran Airways three years ago, the carrier showed it wanted to be a major network carrier, just like American, Delta and United.
Yes, Southwest retains some of its quirks and perhaps its culture is a bit different than its rivals. But with more than 600 aircraft, Southwest is behemoth -- the largest airline in America in terms of domestic passengers carried. It was big before the Air Tran acquisition, of course, but it was the purchase of a smaller rival that made Southwest the powerful carrier it is today.
In the past month, two stories have shown exactly how much Southwest has changed. One was this week in the Wall Street Journal. Susan Carey detailed how Southwest needed to adapt its operations to accommodate new international flights. Previously, Air Tran flew internationally, but Southwest did not. “It was a massive project, one of the biggest in my 22 years," Mike Van De Ven, Southwest’s chief operating officer, told the Journal.
Here's how Carey described it:
"The overseas expansion, while banal by the standards of its big rivals, has required huge changes of Dallas-based Southwest. It had to install a reservations system capable of handling foreign bookings and train staff in everything from how to interact with air-traffic controllers speaking heavily accented English to how to use life rafts if a plane needs to ditch at sea. And, surprisingly in a profession where cheap travel is a major perk, many employees needed to get passports, according to the company and two unions."
As part of the process, Carey notes that the flight crews have had to get used to the new routes. She writes:
The 12,000 flight attendants received cultural-awareness training and performed drills in swimming pools on how to evacuate passengers onto life rafts, which generally aren’t carried on domestic flights. The company plans to give extra compensation to attendants who are fluent in the foreign language needed when they fly an international route. It hasn’t worked out its scheduling software yet, but it plans to have a special-assignment attendant who speaks fluent Spanish on each trip when the first Mexico City flights begin on Nov. 2.
Another piece, written last month by Brett Snyder, also known as Cranky Flier, explains why Southwest has had so much trouble running an on-time operation for the past year. Essentially Southwest scheduled too many flights every day. The airline's schedule planners thought they could get away with an aggressive schedule in part because, in the past, Southwest could turn an aircraft unusually quickly. But Southwest wasn't that airline anymore. Here's how Synder described the problem, which Southwest says has been fixed:
It turned out that a lot had changed since 2012 in the way Southwest operated, and incredibly, the airline didn’t quite realize how much of an impact that would have. To begin, Southwest had gone through a process of adding a row to most of its 737-300s and all of its 737-700s. That meant capacity increased by 6 seats from 137 to 143. At the same time, Southwest began taking delivery of 175-seat 737-800s, further adding seats into the system.
All those extra seats, however, only made it tougher to turn an airplane quickly if there were people in those seats. That was the next issue. Beginning at the end of 2013, Southwest saw its load factors increase significantly.
Do you think Southwest will have more growing pains going forward? Or do you think it has generally sorted out its issues?