Once it seemed that every airline wanted to be just like Southwest Airlines. Now it's Southwest that wants to be more like all the rest.
Southwest became a major airline on the wings of a daring business model. In 1971, air travel was a luxury business, but Southwest's founders went bargain basement. They cut overhead by flying only one model of plane, operating out of cheaper, second-tier airports and minimizing the time their planes spent languishing in airports (by doing away with logistical headaches such as assigned seating and complicated meal service).
Then they set about running their no-frills business well, focusing on keeping promises to customers and employees, who repaid the company with steadfast loyalty. So what if flying on Southwest meant having to stand in boarding lines for an hour to avoid a middle seat? At least you knew what to expect: dependable, basic service. In the notoriously flighty airline industry, there's value in consistency. Not to mention a certain camaraderie in the herd thing.
The formula has delivered for the company. Over the last 36 years, as most major American carriers have entered or come close to bankruptcy (American, United, Delta, Northwest), Southwest has maintained profitability. Its executives have been lionized in the media and on Wall Street. This year, it's on track to surpass American Airlines as the world's largest airline. One has to ask why, at this moment, it is changing its strategy.