According to its news releases, Southwest offers “a reliable product with exemplary customer service.” Consumers agree about the service part, saying the airline’s employees go above and beyond to be friendly and helpful. But the “reliable product” part? Not so much—Southwest comes in for its share of criticism regarding on-time performance. But are the delays their fault? More on that in the Insights section.

On a personal note, I got a rude awakening the other day regarding Southwest’s frequent flyer program. For years, I’ve been flying Southwest for Thanksgiving with the family, assuming one day I would accumulate enough flights to get a free one. But when I was on the phone with Southwest about another matter, I was told I was wrong—I lose my flight credits after two years. Man, was that a disappointment! I might as well just fly with the carrier I normally fly for work. Frustrating. I guess I’m in the minority with this complaint, but still.

One thing I do agree with others about in terms of Southwest positives is the singing flight attendants. They’re awesome.

About Southwest Airlines

In its 40th year of service, Southwest Airlines is the nation’s largest carrier in terms of originating domestic passengers boarded. Based in Dallas, Southwest serves 72 cities in 37 states, currently operates more than 3,400 flights a day, and has more than 35,000 employees.

Positive Themes

Great staff service is one thing Southwest wants to be known for, and posters generally agree, praising the airline’s crew, employees and medical staff.

  • I DO NOT care for Delta Airlines!! Always late, lost baggage, and RUDE AS HELL!!!! I sure love my Southwest Airlines. Southwest rocks!! They need to give Delta some serious schooling in customer service!!!!! (source)
  • Just witnessed an in-flight medical emergency. Southwest personnel did an outstanding job responding as did some nurses and doctors on board (all women). Happy ending to the story for the ill passenger as well. I’m guessing that he’s got another reason to be thankful today! (source)
  • I love Southwest Airlines..I just witness the pilot ask a little girl who was traveling alone if she would like to go on the plane with him first. Customer service and a happy mom..cool. (source)

“Bags fly free!” Now there’s a differentiator in this day and age, and consumers notice.

  • Trying to pack for Colorado and usual I have to much fit in a small suitcase. Thank goodness for Southwest who doesn’t charge for bags! The dogs are getting excited to spend a few days with a two and a four year old! Mocha’s feet never touch the ground while she’s at their house. (source)
  • Southwest airlines is pretty awesome. Me and Jordan checked in a combined 7 bags, 3 of which over 80 lbs, with No charge and the lady also gave us first class tickets…… Rock on!!! (source)

Customers also like Southwest’s low fares.

  • Today ended pretty well. I booked flights for my nieces to visit. Thank god for Southwest airlines, they really do have good prices. Can’t wait to see Lindsey and Emily. Sad Molly can’t come but there will always be a next time. (source)

And here’s another passenger who, like me, gets a kick out of the singing crew.

  • Made it to Texas and I have to say that I love Southwest airlines. This flight attendant started signing a song and people were applauding it was great. If you haven’t flown them try them you will love it. (source)

Negative Themes

People love Southwest’s counter staff and crews, but they’re powerless to prevent flight delays, which really bug travelers. People complain about being “delayed for hours,” “stuck at the airport,” and gripe that Southwest’s “always late.”

  • is in Los Angeles after Southwest Airlines managed to make me miss my connecting flight since they are incompetent and have two hour delays on a one hour flight – will now be flying into Australia tomorrow instead. (source)
  • Southwest Airlines is like my period: it hurts my back and it’s always late. Whitney Cummings. (source)
  • I really hate southwest:: my flight is delayed & I’m stuck at tha airport! Told myself I would never fly with them again…oops my bad!! (source)

Southwest is not immune from another common problem for flyers: lost luggage.

  • Southwest Airlines apparently failed to fly my luggage with me to Florida. I think I’m gonna cry. (source)
  • Thank you Southwest Airlines for losing my bag, you will not get my business anymore. (source)

But here’s a combination complaint and compliment:

  • Finally home after southwest decided o lose my bag lol but i recovered it including a 50$ voucher for my next flight….baybee. (source)

Southwest commercials apparently really annoy a fair number of consumers.

  • Ok, we get it. But I am sick and tired of the Southwest Airline NO BAG FEE commericals. They are getting more and more stupid. Especially in the middle of watching college FOOTBALL. (source)

Insights

Southwest has personality in an industry—passenger air transportation—that is essentially providing a commodity service. They differentiate themselves with their low-cost fares, quirky flight attendants, and their “bags fly free” policy, and lots of consumers love them for it.

One caution for Southwest, however: While free bags is a differentiator, and is popular with consumers, you can brag about it too much, as all the complaints about Southwest “free bag” commercials show.

Customers do love the singing flight attendants. One or more of them must be ready for prime time, and Southwest has a tradition of using its own employees in its commercials. So Southwest, we await commercials featuring your best singers. Besides, consumers could use a break from the drumbeat of the free bag message. In the meantime, here’s the next best thing—Southwest flight attendant David Holmes rapping the pre-flight safety instructions.

Flight delays are the biggest negative, and it’s natural that consumers would blame the delay on the airline they’re flying, but most often it’s not their fault. Delays are caused by too much traffic at airports, weather, disruptions at other airports, passenger problems (if you check your bags on an international flight and don’t board, the plane can’t take off until your bags are taken off—in case they contain bombs) and more. Even though all airlines share those challenges, Southwest nevertheless has had a poor on-time performance record. According to this article, they’re currently in 8th place, moving up from a dismal 17th out of 18 airlines in October 2010.

Looking at the big picture, though, Southwest does an awful lot right. No one disputes that air travel has become a chore since 9/11, but Southwest has added some fun back in and created a brand identity that consumers like by not being afraid to have a playful personality. Good for them.