Southwest Just Announced $2 Billion in Upgrades That Should Make Customers Smile

Southwest Airlines will begin offering faster Wi-Fi, larger overhead bins and USB power outlets at all of its seats. The improvements will be phased in over five years and are part of a plan to spend $3.5 billion a year on capital improvements. The airline also said it would double the movies available to watch during flights. The announcement should be good news for many frequent travelers to the Southwest, especially those traveling for business.

This decision is likely a response to both a current reality and a timeless truth. First, there is the unexpected growth in business travel. Business travel, like all travel, has plummeted during the pandemic. Leisure travel has rebounded over the past year as restrictions eased and people were left with spare cash and a pent-up desire to get away from home.

But business travel was supposed to be another matter. As Zoom and other video chat platforms became more ubiquitous, many thought they would replace many business trips. Experts – including Bill Gates— predicted that even years after the pandemic ended, business travel could still drop by 50%. Instead, some airlines are reporting business travel in 2022 at 70-90% of their 2019 level.

This is the current reality. The timeless truth is that people are creatures of habit, and that includes business travelers. Once most of us have formed habits around where we shop or dine, or which airlines we fly, it’s hard to get us to change, especially since the schedules of airline miles reward us for staying put. However, the pandemic has changed all our habits and even frequent business travelers have spent most of the last two years at home. Which means now is a rare chance to get them to adopt new habits, and eager airlines are competing not with lower prices, but with more amenities that business travelers crave. United, for example, announced last year that it was adding premium seats, larger overhead bins and seatback screens.

More space for hand luggage

Southwest, which has no meals, premium seats or even assigned seats, has long resisted expanding its carry-on baggage, especially since, unlike most airlines, passengers can check in up to two bags free of charge. But he wants to attract more business travelers, and many prefer to travel with carry-on bags to save time waiting for checked bags. Business travelers (and vacationers, too) worry about their smartphones or other devices running out of battery during a flight, and will likely appreciate being able to plug into their seat. And the airline is set to offer a new ticket class that would allow passengers to cancel a flight and transfer the credit to someone else, another offer likely to appeal to business travellers.

Slow and unreliable internet connections are particularly irritating to business people, who often hope to spend their time in the air doing their jobs. Airlines, including Southwest, recognize this and have worked to provide better internet service. Hawaiian Airlines and Delta Air Lines have both announced plans to offer free Wi-Fi to passengers, with Hawaiian Airlines teaming up with Elon Musk’s Starlink service on the offer. Southwest also plans to offer free Wi-Fi, but only temporarily, to create high usage as a test for its new hardware.

Will all of this be enough to attract more business travelers to an airline that has traditionally focused on the leisure travel market? Maybe that’s right. Southwest certainly has more than its share of devoted fans. Anyway, getting airlines to compete with things like faster internet and bigger luggage bins, rather than battling to beat each other’s prices by a dollar or two, to me certainly sounds like a good thing. If you travel for work, I bet you do too.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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