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Is Southwest Airlines losing the luv?

Many Southwest customers complain that the airline now focuses more on padding its bottom line than on low fares and friendly service.

February 09, 2013|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times

To squeeze six extra seats onto each plane, Southwest announced last year a new cabin design for most of its planes that will include seats with thinner cushions, less recline and reduced legroom. Eichinger said that despite the reduction in space, the seats are lighter and more comfortable.

This year, the airline increased fees to check a third bag or an overweight or oversized bag and added a fee to board early. It also plans to enforce a new fee this year for passengers who miss a flight without first calling to cancel. The fee amount has yet to be announced.

Although Southwest has reported profits for 40 straight years, the margin has been dropping, to 2.44% in 2012 from 4.54% in 2010, according to Robert Herbst, a consultant and founder of AirlineFinancials.com.

The latest policy change to dishearten fans was an optional $40 fee to be among the first 15 passengers seated — a fee that Tammy Romo, Southwest's chief financial officer, said could generate "tens of millions" of dollars.

The fee, announced in January, spurred lots of complaints on Southwest's Facebook page.

"You use to be my favorite but now you are doing the same as every other airline by nickel and diming us," Rekha Sharma-Crawford of Overland Park, Kan., posted on the site. "$40 fees for early boarding. Where's the luv?"

Southwest has also received negative news coverage in the last few years for booting from its flights high-profile passengers such as Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong (for wearing low-hanging pants) and director Kevin Smith (for being too big for his seat). Actress Leisha Hailey was tossed after a confrontation over her kissing her girlfriend.

With the added fees and more crowded cabins, Southwest is taking a chance at losing some customers, but analysts say the airline can't sit idle while competitors rake in baggage fees. Delta Air Lines, for example, collected more than $860 million from such fees in 2011.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with New York-based Hudson Crossing, predicts the latest fees and policy changes at Southwest will turn away few, if any, airline customers.

"A lot of people say they will stop flying an airline," he said. "What remains to be seen is how many of the people who say they will stop flying really do so."

Tom Bricker, an Indianapolis attorney, is one of those longtime Southwest customers who said he had been disappointed with the airline lately.

Southwest no longer offers the lowest fares, he said. The airline showers him with promotional emails, but the offers come with lots of limitations and exclusions.

But will he abandon Southwest?

"In the end, I'll still fly Southwest when they have the lowest fares," he said, "but that's happening far less frequently."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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