Should Southwest Airlines Comp Drinks During Delays?

Prior to deregulation the Civil Aeronautics Board ‘experimented’ with the idea of price competition and allowed airlines to undercut Southwest Airlines prices. Southwest, flying only inside Texas at the time, wasn’t subject to CAB price regulation.

Texas International Airlines (which would later acquire Continental, Eastern, People Express, and Frontier) along with Braniff started offering $13 fares between Houston and Dallas. Not to be undercut, Southwest introduced a two-tiered fare structure.

  • They offered to match those $13 fares

  • They also continued to offer a $26 fare, which would include a free bottle of liquor to take home

Business travelers on expense accounts continued to ‘buy up’ to the higher fare, pocketing their choice of liquor. Southwest became the largest liquor distributor in the state of Texas.

For many years Southwest Airlines offered free drinks inflight to all customers. They cut that back to offering free drinks only during key business travel times. And then in 1988 they eliminated free alcohol from their flights, but started giving coupons to frequent flyers. When the airline started enforcing expiration dates on free drink chits, that led to a class action suit which settled in 2015.

Still, booze are part of the Southwest Airlines DNA stemming also from hard drinking CEO Herb Kelleher. Drinks were often comped on holidays for celebration, and during delays. Southwest, though, eliminated their signature snack, peanuts, last year. Kelleher passed away at the beginning of the year. And the drinks no longer flow as freely.

I had a four hour delay of my Southwest Airlines Washington National – Austin flight yesterday. I had originally been booked on American, but my flight cancelled. I’d been auto-rebooked for travel this evening, and the best I could do finding my own inventory was DC – Indianapolis – Chicago – Austin. So I bought the last Southwest Airlines seat on the non-stop.

Right after I arrived at the airport, as our inbound aircraft entered its approach pattern, a storm struck and a tornado warning was announced. Passengers were asked to move away from the windows in the terminal A ‘Banjo’ at National airport, towards the center of the pier. The storm passed quickly, but several aircraft running low on fuel had to divert. And some of those diversion airports saw storms as well and closed.

As a result my Southwest flight delayed four hours. I was grateful I made it home. Still I thought Southwest Airlines ought to comp drinks.

To be clear: my point was not that this was Southwest’s fault, or that they owed anybody anything. To me, though, it was an element of hospitality and in particular Southwest Airlines hospitality.

Southwest was losing money having to divert, and delays are costly, free drinks multiplied out across several delayed flights aren’t free… to them. They got me home, and I appreciated that.

Thinking about my own take, though, underscores that there are two different models of airline service: transactional (getting precisely what is due) and hospitality-focused. Most airlines do not see themselves as being in the hospitality business.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Shouldn’t this be true for all airlines with long delays? I don’t believe we should single out Southwest. I have been on many delayed Southwest flights and received a complementary cocktail because of the delay. Not sure that’s happening much anymore, but I think all airlines would be very hospitable to do that.

  2. I’ve been on my shared of delayed Southwest flights and most of the time the crew has comped drinks! Though I guess it’s not always consistent.

  3. I think comping a round goes a long way in easing people’s anger over a four hour delay. People like to get some sort of resolution in real time. At the bulk price SW buys booze…it’s a couple hundred bucks a flight. But people have swore off an airline for less than a four hour flight. Buying a round of drinks equates to an airline saying “I’m sorry”….which is what most passengers want…or at least will settle for.

  4. I was on the diverted flight sitting on the ground at RIC for 4 hours. They weren’t comping drinks there either.

  5. the dellas cowboys?

    “Texas International Airlines (which would later acquire Continental, Eastern, People Express, and Frontier) along with Braniff started offering $13 fares between Houston and ~~~~Dellas~~~~.”

  6. It’s been a rare delayed flight on WN where I haven’t been provided a gratis drink. So if a “mandatory late takeoff drink policy” starts with WN, will AA, DL, and UA follow suit?

  7. I like the yes/heck yes choice. I do think that this is a no-brainer when flights are delayed.

  8. I can’t remember a flight on WN that was more than 2 hours delayed that I didn’t get a couple comped drinks!

  9. There are two type of passengers: reasonable (understand that a tornado warning is the cause of the delay) and entitled/whining/grabby ones.

  10. I’ve gotten comp drinks after delays on both Southwest and AA. But it’s not consistent/guaranteed, and it’s never announced. I think they’re ok comping drinks for those who are ordering anyway, but don’t want the run on the liquor cart that would come from an announcement.

  11. I am not a drinker for the most part. So, the idea that the airline should encourage drinking in a confined space that I am in does not sit well with me. When I go to a bar or a restaurant with alcohol, I expect people to be drinking. I can choose not to go there. It is okay with me for people to have a drink on the plane, but it should not be encouraged.

  12. “There are two type of passengers: reasonable (understand that a tornado warning is the cause of the delay) and entitled/whining/grabby ones.”

    And bloggers with DYKWIA syndrome.

  13. A week ago Friday we were on a flight with a 30-40 minute delay taking off from DCA and the drinks were comped once in air. They did it discreetly but did say soft drinks and beer/wine/booze were complementary. It was fast enough I thought there was a chance it would not be comped. The row behind us received about four rounds so we could have asked for more than one round. Another flight last year it was comped after some delay, I don’t think the announced it, just didn’t ask for credit cards. Also both times we were in front, I don’t know if that matters. Each time it was in the air.

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