Southwest Airlines Doesn’t Understand The One Thing That Makes Them Better Than United

I had a twitter exchange the other day on Southwest Airlines advertising in Denver, and now see that JonNYC is highlighting the rather disingenuous – and wrong – claim that the Dallas-based airline is Denver’s hometown carrier.

Southwest Airlines used to carry more local passengers to and from Denver, while United had more passengers total given their big connecting hub there. Now United actually carries more Denver locals, too – a result of offering more total seats in the market (they’ve replaced a bunch of regional jets with mainline flying).

The claim in the Southwest Airlines ad isn’t technically false. There’s an asterisk with the data they’re referencing which only measures traffic through the end of 2021. Based on the data set, Southwest’s claim is true. It just isn’t true anymore.

Still, it’s a weird thing to care about.

  • Passengers outside of, perhaps, Seattle don’t make decisions on airline based on which one is ‘theirs’. Delta is a bit of an interloper, and has earned business there, but Alaska has a lot of local allegiance.

  • They’re going to decide on schedule, price and product. Though Southwest has to remind passengers they’re an option, and in fact an option much of the time, because you can’t go to Expedia or Google Flights to find Southwest tickets. You have to go to Southwest’s website, or call them, unless you’re part of a business booking through a business portal.

And yet ‘more of the people you know fly Southwest’ seems like a pretty weak argument. Why not focus on the things that actually sets Southwest Airlines flying apart?

  • Southwest likes to focus on ‘bags fly free.’

  • While United Airlines was the first major carrier to eliminate change fees during the pandemic, their basic economy fares aren’t changeable without machinations. Southwest doesn’t have basic economy fares at all.

  • But the killer app is one that Southwest Airlines never mentions at all. Southwest generally offers two more inches of legroom than United does in regular coach seats. (On some planes it’s only one more inch, but still Southwest offers more legroom than United unless you book Economy Plus or first class – which most people don’t.)

Southwest doesn’t need to resort to statistical trickery to claim the weak sauce of carrying more Denverites than United (as though being from Denver gives you good taste in airlines?). They do have more passengers flying them domestically even if not in the local Denver market, and their employees overall don’t hate their jobs and actually seem to be having fun.

They can claim to offer a better overall value proposition for domestic flyers who do not have elite status on United, since their ticket comes bundled not just with bags but with more legroom. And all fares come without change fees.

Airlines rarely compare themselves to the competition. Most airline advertising promotes a destination (like Air Canada talking up the virtues of Canada) or promotes travel, generally (‘it’s time to fly’). When they go after a competitor, or promote themselves compared to a competitor, they just don’t do a very good job of it. Maybe they don’t realize what their unique selling proposition actually is?

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. Southwest crew are invariably friendly, evedn setting up a kid’s game once in a near deserted terminal when a flight was delayed.

    United customer service showed itself when they beat up Dr. David Dao.

  2. To L3 – you clearly missed the point of the story , Southwest using data from a few years ago, but you use a data point from 6 years ago. No hope for America they can not digest the story of a simple bloggers article.

  3. DEN is such an important market to both United and Southwest because it is the only major big 3 hub where the big 3 carrier was not the leader in the local market. LUV jumped into DEN and then rapidly grew in the post 9/11 period when the big 3 were all on the ropes financially. LUV had fuel hedges that were paying off handsomely and saving them lots of money on fuel costs.
    Now, Colorado is rapidly growing, DEN was built for lots of expansion which now makes sense, and WN and UA are both taking full advantage of the opportunities that are out there. DEN has great geography as a nationwide hub and the two are going to duke it out and deploy as many new aircraft as possible to DEN.
    That said, UA does not have the current reputation that Gary loves to think they have and WN is still reputationally recovering from their Christmas 2022 operational disaster. WN does have lots of brand equity built up and has repeatedly demonstrated a very high ability to adapt to changing business environments.
    The biggest thing that will help both is certification and deliveries of the MAX 7 for WN and the MAX 10 for UA, with the former coming first which will probably give WN a headstart in their next DEN growth spurt.

  4. The MAX10 doesn’t mean much for United at DEN… it was originally intended to replace the 28J p.s. 757 fleet prior to the grounding and COVID. Whenever it comes, it will mostly be deployed in the transcontinental network. The real growth at DEN will be in additional mainline frequencies of all stripes, including the hundreds of 7M8/9 and A321neos on order, and continued replacement of regional with larger gauge.

  5. This reminds me of how Delta was known for advertising that they’d won a ‘best of’ award that no one had ever heard of. Totally disingenuous.

  6. yes bags fly free on Southwest but if you compare pricing you pay more on Southwest than United because the bag fees are in the fare….. in most cases…! so bags fly free are already paid for. Get it!

  7. The thing that UA has that SW does not have is a FF program that allows you redeem points for overseas travel or upgrades…etc. I can’t go to Sydney Australia by flying SW. But by flying on UA, I’ve accumulated so many points that on my routes to and from Australia from SFO I’ve been upgraded 4 times to Business and have flown 2 or 3 roundtrips just on points! Try that with SW.

  8. Legroom deserves mention in ads.

    Also that you can still get an aisle seat (or window, if you prefer) even booking two days before your flight, as long as you buy early boarding or check in exactly 24 hours before departure. For last-minute travel, other airlines leave you a choice of middle seats.

  9. Actually, I made my decision of my main carrier based on which one was “ours”. I’m a Chicagoan born, bred, raised, and resident, and I chose to give my business to the one who justifiably calls themselves “Chicago’s Hometown Airline”.

    I flew WN enough years ago to get A-List Preferred, until I got sick of their inferior service, stupid boarding ritual, and cramped cabins. I built up my status enough to avoid the legroom issue altogether.

    In all respects, I made a good decision. Flyers of DEN, I invite you to join me on the Friendly Skies.

  10. GKK,
    no one said that either the MAX7 for WN or MAX10 for UA will end up in DEN.
    The point is that both airlines have hundreds of MAXs on order that they cannot realistically plan on deploying when scheduled until Boeing gets the planes certified and out the door.
    The MAXs will provide capacity that both airlines need and could very well backfill other aircraft which are used in DEN.
    WN will receive its MAX7s before UA receives its MAX10s.

    WN saw an opportunity to grow DEN when UA was financially weak and the tables are now turned

    The chances are very low that WN will lose anywhere near the share that UA lost and the chances are higher that WN – which uses larger aircraft on average than UA – will regain its share.

    How either do that in advertising will be at best a footnote five years from now.

  11. They are all in a race to the bottom.

    Personally I would like to see an ad campaign focused on “we promise treat you better” But of course that would be a lie for most carriers.

  12. I do wonder why Southwest does not figure out a way to be listed on the major airfare search engines. Even the ultra low cost carriers have figured out a way to get listed, usually charging more if you don’t buy direct (and I assume many customers find them first on the search engines and then DO buy direct). I’m a very frequent flyer, but don’t live in the city with a huge Southwest presence. I am certain that, over the years, in booking my own travel and travel for others, Southwest has lost business because I didn’t think to also check their website for their flights. I usually only think to do that if I’m unhappy with all the other airlines’ fares or schedules. I am sure millions of other people have behaved the same way.

  13. Yeah, I’ll fly the airline that doesn’t have singing flight attendants or crew members telling dad jokes.

  14. I recently moved to Denver and southwest product has been worse and worse every time we fly them. Burnt out flight crews, being in the back of the plane with good boarding position, delays, the Christmas fiasco, rude passengers saving seats, I could go on. When our SW companion pass expired we are switching to united / delta.

  15. Denver transplant – Blaming Southwest for the conduct of Denver’s DemocRat liberal populace and how they behave is misguided. What happened during Christmas was unforeseen and a one time event. Burnt out flight crews has and continues to happen to all airlines. Your complaints are not all Southwest’s fault. But if you decide to switch, expect more of the same behavior of those flying, with higher ticket prices, baggage fees and rude flight crews. You will regret changing airlines.

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