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Wednesday
Oct222008

02. It’s Airline Deregulation Bday Week: Triangulating Southwest to the Point of Indifference

Second in a series on Deregulation

There cannot be a discussion on the morphing of the US airline industry over the past 30 years without a few words on Southwest Airlines. The presence of this one airline, and its unique model in the US market, has influenced everything from network development; to labor costs; to non-labor costs; to the fostering of an environment that screams “I luv my job,” – rare in the US airline industry.

As I said in Monday’s post, I believe the industry’s discussion of commercial aviation’s economic impact is backward, I am indifferent about the role of Southwest and the Low Cost Carriers sector in general. But I believe that Southwest has had profound influence on the industry, both good and bad.

Network Triangulation

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Dallas-based carrier was increasingly recognized as a potential force. In May of 1993, the US Department of Transportation published what is now a highly recognized piece analyzing that force: The Airline Deregulation Evolution Continues: The Southwest Effect. Many know Southwest’s storied beginnings, beginning with a napkin on which the initial route network was drawn: Houston – Dallas – San Antonio. As the name implies, much of its network was confined to west of the Mississippi River until 1995.

In addition to the obvious airport market attributes Southwest looks for before it enters a new city, the carrier employed a fairly rigid network strategy as well. One day, I sat down at a table and mapped out Southwest’s growth city by city over its history. Lo and behold, when the initial nonstop segments were announced from a new airport market, you could bet that new triangles were formed. For example, from Indianapolis, Southwest might announce Orlando and Kansas City service. Southwest made sure before announcing any two new segments from a new city that there was existing service between the two points, just as there was in the case of Orlando-Kansas City when Southwest began service in Indianapolis.

Airline observers often refer to the hubs of the network legacy carriers as “fortress hubs.” Southwest built its own fortresses of sorts through the use of its network triangle strategy, protecting its own flows no matter how small. Over time, the carrier took small hub airports and made them medium hubs – or nodes -- which like fortress hubs serve to protect Southwest’s primacy and discourage competition.

Southwest’s construction of its nodal network provides it with both the flexibility of being a point-to-point carrier as well as a carrier that connects traffic across its system at super nodes like Baltimore, Nashville, Phoenix and Las Vegas. While it serves only 64 of the nation’s 340+ commercial airports within the contiguous United States, Southwest impacts more than 90 percent of nation’s domestic origin and destination traffic.

This calculation is tedious but its methodology is simple. Draw a circle of two hours driving distance around each of Southwest’s 64 points – a clear visual of their strategy that aims to expand the catchment area, or reach, of the airport markets it chooses. Then, envelope multiple airports within the catchment area; each of them becomes a source of demand for the carrier’s lower fares. Southwest service has demonstrated clearly that the highway is an acceptable entry point to access the US air transportation system, but it also has had a negative and profound effect on small airports.

[Editorial question for policymakers: why is access to the air transportation system via the highway acceptable when Southwest is involved and not acceptable if a network legacy needs to close a market because it is not economic to serve a particular airport market?]

Earlier this month, Southwest announced it would start service to Minneapolis/St. Paul making the Twin Cities its 65th node. To give you an idea of the power of the carrier’s "no-connect network", it advertises that modest service between the Twin Cities and Chicago-Midway will provide access to more than two-thirds of Southwest’s entire network.

Great to be a Southwest Employee, Not so great for other airline employees

In recent years, Southwest employees have fared significantly better than their network legacy carrier peers in winning wage and benefit improvements. Today, Southwest workers are, on average, the highest compensated employees among the top dozen carriers. Their secret in providing industry-high average wages is simple. Their model incorporates and employs high productivity across a network of shorter stage lengths and smaller aircraft that should, by definition, make this achievement most difficult. And all of this is made possible through their unique network.

Keep in mind however, that Southwest did not enter the competitive fray burdened by labor contracts with provisions held over from before the advent of jet airplanes. It didn’t have a senior workforce or the labor costs bloated by seniority pay. And it didn’t have a network like those of its competitors that entered the market well before deregulation – in other words one designed by regulators who determined which cities, from which carrier, would get commercial air service with little regard for efficiency. Instead, Southwest got to draw its own lines and routes that define the company today. And they did so with an evangelical approach to labor and employee relations that many believe give the airline an edge in customer service and reliability as well.

Productivity is the Southwest mantra – whether it is labor, aircraft or facilities. Southwest’s non-labor costs have always been a competitive advantage. Many observers believe that unit labor costs are the airline’s most effective weapon, but I argue that is not the case. Instead, it is the relationship of productivity and pay that has provided Southwest with flexibility to pay relatively high wages as it negotiates with its highly-unionized work force.

This is the concept that the unionized work forces of the network legacy carriers struggle to comprehend. Traditional hub and spoke carriers with vast operations cannot achieve Southwest’s level of productivity. But there is a relationship, or an equilibrium, that can be found at each and every carrier. If the will to ”find it” could only be found.

Now, 30 years after the deregulation experiment began, Southwest has grown to be the largest domestic carrier in the US, with low costs and network scope that will continue to pose a significant competitive challenge to other airlines. Southwest may well be the best managed airline in the business, as most industry observers agree. But its success was also helped by the fact that Southwest did not enter the fray with a legacy noose around its neck. Instead, Southwest succeeded because it was small, nimble and could easily adapt and exploit opportunities as the competitive landscape evolved.

Triangulating Labor, Network, and Southwest

In an ideal world, an airline’s network would drive the labor and staffing decisions to achieve the best possible efficiency and productivity for the respective airline. In the real world, the legacy network carriers are often forced to create a network around the labor contracts that have put strict limits on productivity and constraints on how best to serve markets in its system.

Low cost carriers are most often cited as the primary driver of consumer benefits because low fares have opened the skies to the masses. But are they? Have they been? No. Consider that Southwest serves only 20 percent of the commercial airports in the contiguous United States. So how can they, and their low cost carrier peers, be considered the shining light(s) of deregulation? Yes they drove prices down in the larger markets – the only markets the low cost sector serves with few exceptions - and in some small markets indirectly, but the effect was to kill off many small airports in their wake.

Through its efficient and methodical approach to building a company, Southwest puts pressure on incumbents to be just as efficient. We see this most recently as network legacy carriers have reduced wages and increased productivity. But the process has been supremely painful and, in some cases, required a trip or two through the bankruptcy courts, in part because neither management nor labor leaders had the will to make changes necessary to adapt to new competition.

Today, Southwest’s network touches virtually every geographic market of size in the US. As the domestic market is now contested at each and every point, the network legacy carriers are left with two choices: 1) attrit and possibly exit the domestic space; or 2) negotiate a new labor construct that can cohabitate with the likes of Southwest. Neither choice is ideal. But one choice is better than the other.

Concluding Thoughts

Throughout my career, I’ve been engaged in some battles involving Southwest – but only on the other side. I can attest that they are a hard-nosed competitor. But I am a professed network carrier guy that fervently believes the low cost sector receives entirely too much credit for bringing the benefits this industry drives each and every day.

Southwest is often first to cry foul with claims of being competitively disadvantaged when it tries to enter new markets or protests paying for what it believes is its fair share of the air traffic system. But that so-called “disadvantage” has done quite well for Southwest’s leaders, employees and shareholders.

I applaud and admire the airline’s culture and competitive success. But before we give all of the awards, I ask that small communities and legacy carrier labor ask what good Southwest has done them? In fact, it is the network legacy carriers that deserve awards for keeping many small communities alive by continuing air service, even when some of these routes can’t be flown profitably. It is also true that ticket prices have been contained or even reduced by the hub competition that exists in the US domestic market today.

In the future, look to the horizon for the new competitive battleground. It will be more about Auckland than Amarillo. It really will.

More to come.