I saw Jan Marshall, CIO of Southwest Airlines present this morning at the Tibco TUCON conference about sophisticated events-based functionality in baggage tracking and customer communications. On the flight back, I saw a column in the in-flight Spirit magazine by its CEO, Gary Kelly which was titled “Technology is our friend”.
That is quite a turnaround for an airline which in 2001 had reusable, plastic boarding passes that were collected as passengers boarded. In fact, the airline made a virtue of being low tech. New security after 9/11 forced the airline, kicking and screaming, to rethink ticketing and other automation.
The chapter on consumerization of technology in the book goes into various ways in which Southwest has adjusted to “the increasingly tech-savvy customer, the one around whom Apple had built its phoenix-like renewal.”
Here are some excerpts
“No popcorn on board, but would you like Cokes to go with that movie?” asked Mike, the Southwest flight attendant as he came to a row with all three passengers peering down intently at a laptop. “Not a movie—GPS maps,” responded the passenger in the middle seat. Mike then noticed the tether coming out of the laptop and disappearing under the window shade. He could not see it, but the passenger’s laptop showed the GPS-derived bearings as 29.00058 N/ 81.48425 W/ 25466.86 ft. “I bet you have more detailed maps than our pilots do up front,” Mike continued. He was right about that. A few minutes earlier, the passengers had laughed at how quickly McDonald’s were zipping by as they flew the length of the Sunshine State at 500 miles an hour.”
“It would have only mildly surprised Mike to find he was the first Southwest employee the passenger had talked to on this trip. The passenger had booked his flight online and had printed his boarding pass at home. He had no bags to check so he did not need to interact with any Southwest ground employees. Southwest’s accountants must love such low-touch customers! Mike would have been a bit more surprised to find that the passenger had tracked the in-bound flight on a Web site called FlightAware and noticed the flight was running a bit late, so he had stayed home and had that extra cup of coffee. When he got to the airport, he had jumped on the free Wi-Fi the airport offered and checked on the in-bound flight again. In prior years, gate agents would often “stretch the truth” about flight status. Now, passengers can double-check on their own. While at it, the passenger had checked for likely thunder clouds on the route via Weather.com. It looked like a fine day to fly.”
“As Southwest installs Wi-Fi radomes (humps that shield the antennas) near the tails of its 737s, passengers would have even more real-time information about the flight on their laptops or PDAs—with somewhat delayed information, one hopes, so as not to compromise air security. Passengers would definitely have far more choices in live news and sports and other Web fare—far beyond what its competitor JetBlue pioneered with satellite TV a few years ago. That technology had stolen a number of Southwest’s faithful, and another upstart, Virgin America, was starting to do again by equipping 100 percent of its fleet with Wi-Fi.”
“Things sure had changed in the last few years, Mike thought. Changed so much that Southwest had tested various GPS units and had the confidence to allow passengers to use them in-flight while most airlines banned them. Authorities, such as the U.S. FAA, leave the decision to airline discretion.”
“In 2009, realizing that the service had indeed been valuable, Southwest introduced in own EarlyBird check-in—this time for $10 per flight! Seeing how far Southwest has come since 2001, few would dare call it a technology Luddite any more.”