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Aviation: Flying Southwest

Herb Kelleher, the charismatic co-founder and long-time CEO of Southwest passed away on January 3. Tyler McDowell takes a trip with the airline and explains what makes it different to most other budget airlines.

A two week flying tour of the United States might be something of a labour of love, but was a challenge I was happy to take up since it involved 20 flights with nine airlines across eight US and four European cities in 14 days. I decided I wanted to try as many US airlines as I could and made sure I booked myself on the ‘Big Three’ - Delta, United and American. I also chose jetBlue to fill a short hour-long ride between the USA's most famous city, New York, and the capital Washington DC.

I needed to travel from Atlanta to Los Angeles and had a stop in Dallas in mind to fill the gap. Virgin America was my choice from Dallas Love-Field (DAL) to Los Angeles as the carrier was being merged into Alaska Airlines and wasn't going to be around for much longer. Selecting a departure from DAL made Southwest Airlines (SWA) a natural choice to get there, enabling me to compare the US budget carrier to its European equivalents Ryanair and easyJet that I use fairly regularly.

The Southwest website offered a one-way ticket from Atlanta to Dallas for only $109 (£85) on a 07:00 flight lasting two and a half hours. But then an alternative caught my attention. A one-stop service from Atlanta to Dallas via Houston Hobby was on offer at $117 (£91). That was $8 more and it left at 06:30, but got into Dallas at 09:00 - half an hour before the other flight - and I would get an extra airport and flight in my log. I saw this second option as a bargain - two flights at the equivalent of $58 (£46) each and no additional payments for baggage, insurance or priority boarding which saved a few dollars.

I stayed at a hotel in Atlanta with a free airport shuttle, so I timed my departure for the first of the day that left at 4am sharp. I had already downloaded the SWA app to my smart phone and checked in using the mobile boarding pass option, which made getting through the airport easy. The majority of Southwest operations at Atlanta came from the acquisition of Air Tran Airways in 2011, which used it for a major hub since the days when it was known as ValuJet. Southwest took on 737-700s from Air Tran, but the eighty-eight strong fleet of Boeing 717-200 local rival Delta Airlines.

An early start from Atlanta.

The first of my two Southwest flights was Boeing 737-7H4 N775SW, still carrying the 2001-2014 "Canyon Blue" livery. This airframe had been operated by Southwest since its construction in July 2000 and was 17.5 years old at the time. I boarded flight WN760 and took seat 10F over the forward half of the wing. Unlike many airlines, Southwest doesn't allocate seats, meaning all 149 were available for whoever got on first. The cabin was about half full and I ended up with a row to myself. The backs and bases of the seats were upholstered with leather-style material popularized during the 2000s, prior to the introduction of ‘slim-line’ designs. They were blue all over, replacing the brown and black hues in the airline's older 737-classics in the 1980s and 1990s.

Peanuts were a Southwest 'trademark' but have been replaced with pretzels.

As it was late January, take off and the first ninety minutes of the flight were in darkness and sitting on the starboard side, I missed a beautiful sunrise as we cruised towards Texas. Southwest differentiates itself from commonly adopted low cost airline practice by providing complimentary soft beverages, hot drinks (alcohol at a fee) and snacks on board - a far cry from the business model adopted by some European carriers. There was nothing fancy to eat though - just two packets of salted peanuts, which were another Southwest 'trademark' but have since been replaced with pretzels. That caused controversy among die-hard fans of the airline who had become used to nuts over the last five decades. The airline claims that change was made accommodate people with allergies, but some observers suggested it was down to rises in peanut prices in the US. I chose to have my snack with tea (I am after all, British) and orange juice.

A quick look at the front seats was approved.

The flight was bathed by the new light of the day as descent towards the Southwest-dominated Hobby Airport commenced. Before I disembarked a request to visit to the flight deck for a photo was approved; even in these security conscious times a cockpit image is on my list of requirements, and a bit like a hunter I enjoy a trophy.

Entering the terminal at Hobby (or HOU to give it the three-letter code), I found a screen showing the gate for my next flight, which turned out to be directly opposite where I had just arrived - other than being at adjacent gates, this must have represented the closest gate change known to man.

The next flight was to take me on one of the routes originally started by Southwest, from HOU to Dallas Love Field. This hour long hop was operated by relatively new Boeing 737-8H9 N8311Q, sporting split scimitar winglets. It was "canyon blue" at the time but has has since been repainted into the newer "heart" livery. The aircraft was delivered in June 2012 with standard upturned winglets and the ‘splits’ were a recent addition. The interior was kitted out with the new slimline seats and had the Boeing 'Sky Interior' which is a feature of upgraded Next Generation aircraft on the recent MAX series. The cabin was sleek, modern, fresh and young. The 737-700 wasn't bad, but settling into the -800 I felt like I'd upgraded from a basic supermini to a sports car.

Split scimitar winglets reduce fuel burn and look good.

As before I grabbed a window seat that didn’t already have somebody in it - one tip for those who do want a view is to board early, while aisle seat aficionados can get on at anytime. The flight was about 75% full and I still managed a row to myself sitting 17F, just behind the wing but in full view of the split scimitar wing tips. I had never flown a 737 with these so it was something new, at least for me. The departure was over Houston which was filling with rush hour traffic and provided some stunning views. Clear skies provided perfect views of the Lone Star State as we flew between the two largest metropolitan areas.

Soft drinks and nuts are complimentary on Southwest.

Again peanuts and drinks were served - I decided to shake things up a little by taking a refreshing ginger ale along with the honey roasted nuts. After arriving at Dallas Love Field I asked to take a picture of the flight deck and had a warm welcome from the Captain. As I got my shots, he even humorously asked me: "What part of Texas are you from?"

My time in Texas was limited although I would have liked to have visited the town that shares my first name - Tyler. But that had to wait for for another day.

Overall Southwest offer a solid and reliable product and I will certainly fly them again - maybe to get a trip on one of the new 737-MAX aircraft now being introduced into the fleet. I found the airline to be very "premium" compared to the low cost airlines I've used in the past. In America, Ryanair and easyJet would be classed as ‘ultra low cost carriers’ (ULCCs), a category we don't really have in Europe as the market is segmented into flag carriers and budget airlines. In the USA the typical designations are legacy carrier, low-cost airline or ULCC. If Southwest was operating in Europe, rather than competing with Norwegian, Wizzair, Ryanair and easyJet, its product would closer to airlines like Lufthansa, KLM, Finnair and British Airways, all of which have changed their short-haul service and the reduced in-flight amenities that are included in ticket prices.

Pictures, text and video © Tyler McDowell

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