There's nothing like a trip on United to make me miss Southwest.
I confess. I am one of those people who really likes to fly on Southwest. I am in awe of the business model and the straightforward execution. They do exactly one thing: fly full planes on profitable routes. They do it with good cheer under challenging circumstances. Everything else is secondary to that objective. I know that I may be in a minority here, so I'll focus on three things that Southwest lacks and explain why their absence doesn't bother me. Then I will mention some things that Southwest does uniquely well.
First, Southwest doesn't pre-assign seats. Seating is open, and the seat you get depends on how close to the front of the line you are. People who would obviously not fare well under these rules, like families with young children and those with medical conditions, get to board first. In my experience, I have found that as long as I am in the second (of three) boarding groups, I can get a window or an aisle seat. This is as we would expect, since two thirds of the seats are window or aisle seats. Yes, I admit that the anxiety sometimes gets to me, but consider the payoff. In exchange for imposting a little anxiety on me--a basically organized and prompt person--this policy makes Southwest an unappealing choice for people who like to show up late. You have heard the quip, "If you never miss a flight, then you are spending too much time in airports." Guess what. Catering to those people makes it very difficult to operate an airline efficiently. Better that they fly someone else.
Second, there is no first class and there are no upgrades. Wonderful. Keeping track of all that stuff is way too complicated for most airlines. Today, when I checked in at the United kiosk, it asked me if I wanted to upgrade or get a seat with more legroom. So every person, regardless of whether they would be interested, has to answer these questions. What a waste of time and a needless distraction that could confuse some people. Better to focus on filling up a plane full of identical seats.
Third, there is no food service. This complaint reminds me of another quip, "The food is terrible and the portions are small." No airline has ever gotten food service in coach satisfactory. Airports are filled with food courts and shops. Better to let each person bring on board whatever s/he wants to eat and leave the cost out of the ticket price. Food service also imposes a logistical burden. Better to let the plane leave 5 minutes earlier than to have to make sure that the right type and quantity of food was delivered. Less time on the ground means more flights and more reliable scheduling.
And then there are the things that Southwest does right. The frequent flyer program is completely sane. Travelers earn a point for going to a destination. Collect 16 points in a year, and then you get a free ticket that you can use on any flight on any date that isn't blacked out during the next year. There is no wondering about whether the airline will make available enough seats on a particular flight. There is no need to keep track of miles or to think about alternative ways to spend them.
Southwest also only flies B737's. No need to worry about whether the crew is trained to operate this type of aircraft or the other. No need to be careful of substituting equipment at the last moment for fear of wrecking the pre-assigned seats. Southwest also avoids the largest and busiest airports in most metropolitan areas in favor of satellite airports--Manchester and Providence instead of Boston, Oakland and San Jose instead of San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami, Islip instead of New York City, and Midway instead of O'Hare. Major airports have major delays. An airline cannot make money with the planes on the tarmac.
Southwest also will only fly to a city if it can have 10 or more flights per day. This means that it can do maintenance and refueling at the outlying airports rather than the hub. This allows for much smoother execution, since there is more competition for resources and risk of a bottleneck at a hub.
I have been following the airline industry as a hobby for quite a while. Southwest is seldom if ever acknowledged as the best airline. Airlines are typically ranked based on passenger miles or revenues. What's the point of obtaining a dollar of revenue if it cost two dollars to get it? What's the point of flying a passenger mile if you lose money on it? Southwest is not the leader in these categories. But it is the leader where it counts. Check out the market caps of all publicly traded airlines on this page. No other domestic airline even comes close.
I think I get so agitated about this issue because there are always airlines in Chapter 11 lobbying the federal government for a bailout. I have a lot of respect for people who work at airlines. What they do is not easy, and most of them do it sincerely. But there is no compelling reason why taxpayers should have to repeatedly subsidize unsound business practices.