Case Study: Southwest Airlines Competitive Advantages

For most of the last fifteen years, the U.S. airline industry has been one of the least attractive to be in. Following the 1978 deregulation of the industry, twenty-nine new airlines entered the industry between 1978 and 1993- This rapid increase in air­line carrying capacity led to a situation of overcapacity. As more and more airlines chased passengers, fares were driven down to levels barely sufficient to maintain the prof­itability of U.S. airlines. Indeed, twice since 1978 the indus­try has been engulfed in an intense price war—first in the1981-1983 period and then again in the 1990-1993 period. So intense did the com­petition become during these two periods that in 1982 the whole industry lost $700 million, while in the 1990-1992 period the industry lost a staggering $7.1 billion, more than had been made during the previous fifty-year history of the industry.

Despite the obviously hostile nature of this industry, one company, Southwest Airlines, has not only been consistently profitable but also has been its performance improve during years when its competitors were wallow­ing in red ink. Southwest is a regional airline with a major presence in Texas. In 1992, when every major U.S. airline except Southwest lost money, Southwest actually reported a sharp jump in its net profit to $105.5 million on rev­enues of $1.68 billion, up from $26.9 million on revenues of $1.31 billion in 1991.

Southwest is profitable because of two factors: its low costs and the loyalty of its customers. Its low costs come from a number of sources. Southwest offers a no-frills approach to customer service. No meals are served on board, and there are no first-class seats. Southwest does not subscribe to the big reservation computers used by travel agents because it deems the booking fees too costly. The airline flies only one type of aircraft, the fuel-efficient Boeing 737, which keeps training and maintenance costs down. Southwest’s customer loyalty also comes from a number of sources. Due to its low cost structure, Southwest can offer its customers low prices, which builds loyalty. Southwest also has a reputation for being the most reliable carrier in the industry. It has the quickest turn­around time in the industry (it takes a Southwest ground crew just fifteen minutes to turn around an incoming a craft and prepare it for departure), which  helps keep flights on time. The company also has a well-earned reputation for listening to its customers. For example, when five Texas medical students who commuted weekly to out-of-state medical school complained that the flight them to class fifteen minutes late, Southwest moved the departure time up fifteen minutes. In addition, South west’s focused route structure (it serves just fifteen states, mostly in the South) has helped it build a substantial regional presence and avoid some of the cutthroat competition that the nationwide airlines have to grapple with.

Last but not least, the airline has a very productive work force. Southwest Airlines’ People Department, is touted as the crux on their groundbreaking route to success in the airline industry, and there is no question that both the ingrained and manufactured personality traits along with the both the innate and encouraged behavior patterns of Southwest employees have been an important factor in their recent success, however their true competitive advantage lies in the simplicity and streamlined nature of their product and operation.  Southwest’s original business plan to dominate in the interstate air traffic in both Texas and California was forced upon them by the actions of their competitors, and it was at this time in the company’s history that the underdog/scrapper nature of their employees, especially Herb Kelleher, the CEO, really made a huge impact. Kelleher even compared himself at the time to a medieval crusader, which shows the depth of his passion and commitment to his company. When Southwest was faced with such a daunting uphill climb to be competitive in the industry, that unique spirit that is still highly-valued was crucial to their success in the introduction and growth phase of the company. That spirit provided the inspiration for extremely high levels of organizational commitment Southwest needed for employees to struggle for years to achieve even the beginnings of a successful airline. Employees felt, and still feel, like they had true ownership in the company and that their behaviors and attitude on a daily basis led to the company’s success. Though these feelings have proven to be helpful it is Southwest’s very targeted business plan and their slow expansion that is their advantage. Southwest choose to be the best at what they were “given” in the early 1970’s, they threw everything at it with a crusader’s commitment and it worked. Then by maintaining their low cost, no frills beginnings as they unhurriedly expanded the continued underdog attitude has worked because essentially as Southwest expands they are underdogs in the markets they are joining. Their competitive advantage is their business model, a difficult one to initiate and maintain in the airline business therefore they need the unique employee spirit to implement such a difficult strategy. For example, their pilots work more hours for less pay but their commitment to making the Airline a success and the feelings generated by the organizational commitment of upper management and their colleagues make that extra work fulfilling because the pilots are conditioned to feel they themselves and their actions are crucial to Southwest’s triumph. In addition, Southwest operates a gener­ous stock option plan that extends  to all employees. As a result about 10 percent of the airline’s stock is owned by its employees, which gives them an additional incentive to work hard.

Case Discussion Questions

  1. What does the success of Southwest Airlines tell you about the relative importance of industry company-specific factors in explaining a con performance?
  2. What  is the basis of Southwest Airlines competitive advantage? How might it lose that advantage?
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