Working the Southwest System

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Happy New Year. We wish you and your family a safe and healthy 2008. We also hope that it is prosperous and productive for you.

We have a lot of great material to deliver this year, but let me start with a quick update on my friend Jay’s charity and the contest on Yahoo that he was in.

Food on Foot crushed the competition. Jay raised over $43,000 from more than 1,800 supporters. And because he won, Yahoo will match the amount that he raised so the homeless in Los Angeles got over $86,000 this week – with hundreds of the donations coming from us. The readers of my blog and NewsBlaze stepped up in a big way – and for that I say, thank you! Now, back to business.

Many of my readers know that I’m an extremely frequent traveler. For years, I flew more than 100,000 miles a year, and I put almost every one of those miles on United Airlines. A couple of years back I switched to Southwest Airlines partly because they had better service to some of the local areas that I visited, and partly because the people who run that airline are always so cheerful. It was a pleasure to fly with them.

Like other people who fly Southwest, I had to get used to the culture of that airline which has had a “free-for-all” boarding process and other activities which are foreign to most of the other airlines. Never-the-less, I got used to it and now it’s my airline of choice, even for longer flights, which came as a surprise to me. Not only did I manage to get used to it, but now I prefer the simplicity of it.

In early November 2007, Southwest Airlines announced a new boarding procedure – and this procedure has been difficult for some people to catch on to. Because I’ve traveled several times with the new procedure, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many of the flight attendants and other frequent travelers to get the inside track. Today, I want to share that inside information to help make your holiday travel season just a little more sensible.

One of the games that the frequent travelers play on Southwest Airlines is to reserve their boarding pass online exactly 24 hours “to the second” before the flight takes off. That’s the way that you guarantee that you’ll receive the best boarding pass possible. In the past, there were three different boarding groups – A, B, or C. But now Southwest is dividing the boarding groups into a large number of sub-groups in increments of five within both the A and B grouping.

That means that if you get boarding card number one, you really will get on the plane, just about first, where as under the old system, getting boarding card number one was the same as getting boarding card number forty five. That was because all of those forty five people were in the first group, and you might be the last person in the first group or the first one depending on when you physically arrived in the boarding area – regardless of when you claimed your boarding card.

So Southwest Airlines smartly reorganized their boarding system so that the people who acquire their boarding cards first, get on the plane first. But the trick is that this new system allows Southwest to give business travelers who pay more and buy at the last minute to not be penalized, as under their old boarding system. Potentially the person who bought the ticket at the last moment for the highest price would board in the last group – and they might actually get the worst seat on the plane.

So here’s how the new deal works and here’s the inside track. Boarding cards in group A with numbers 1 through 16 are reserved for business travelers who purchase a special fare that enables them to get on the plane first. This means that if they buy the ticket last, they still can have boarding position number 1 through 16 guaranteeing them to get on the plane first. If you don’t buy a ticket with a special fare, you can still go online and acquire a boarding card in the first several seconds that it becomes available, but the earliest boarding card number that you can get with a discounted fare is boarding position number 17.

Therefore, it’s possible, when you get to the airport, to be standing in the part of the line for 16 and later, but there may be no one in front of you. So potentially, position number 17 could actually be the first person on the plane. The other irregularity that you might notice is, if you have an originating flight, you could get a boarding number as low as number 17. But if you have a flight that connects to another flight as early as, one, two, or three hours before, the people on the earlier flight will consequently get the earliest boarding cards.

Some of the new rules have been confusing, but surprisingly, the passengers on Southwest (who are very easy going), have adapted to the new system very well.

But here’s the most interesting observation of all. Why is it that passengers on Southwest Airlines pick up after themselves, have a pleasant attitude, generally have more patience, and are easier to get along with, than the exact same people who get on another airline? The same people, when they fly on United Airlines, leave their trash on the plane, and have a lot less patience for the process. It has to be something to do with the fact that Southwest Airlines has done a good job of training us and providing us with a suitable experience, so that we agree to go along with their rules.

In your own businesses, give some thought to this. Do your customers treat you differently at different times? Even in your own family, do your children treat you differently in one environment than they do in another, or do they treat some people nicer than they treat other people? Think about what the external conditions are to cause this situation to occur. The answers may surprise you, but they also just might be very enlightening. Maybe we should address this in a future story. Let me know what you think, by leaving a message on my blog.

Often dubbed a Growth Architect by his clients, Joel Block advises companies on explosive growth strategies by driving revenue and sales. Well known in the capital markets, Joel is a successful entrepreneur, speaker, advisor and faculty member of the iLearningGlobal community.