Is Southwest Airlines Coasting On Its Friendly Reputation?

Profits are up, but people say they’re losing the “luv.”

By Brenda SalinasMay 13, 2015 7:55 am

Greg Puriski has worked as a ramp worker for Southwest Airlines for 19 years, and he’s always felt like he was an asset to the company.

“The last few years – I want to say the last five years or so – the culture has changed, from where we’re more like a regular legacy carrier or regular corporation, to where we’re not really appreciated anymore, and it just feels like there’s procedure changes all the time,” Pruinski says. “We’re just basically like another airline right at the moment with our working conditions.”

That doesn’t sound like the Southwest that gained a reputation through the 90’s as an affordable carrier with a great attitude and a talent for quirkiness. Remember the rapping Southwest flight attendant that went viral in 2009?

The airline has aged since then. Some people say it’s lost its fun. It still has the lowest add-on fees in the industry, which puts the airline ahead of many of its competitors in terms of customer satisfaction, though by less and less every year. Seth Kaplan is the editor of Airline Weekly.

“In some markets, like Austin where people are very familiar with Southwest, they still enjoy the open seating and some of the things that they’ve been used to all these years,” Kaplan says. “But as it goes into new markets, you have people that might be willing to pay even for a seat assignment if they could get one but they can’t.”

Since it acquired Air Tran, in 2014, Southwest has steadily been raising its fares. It’s not a cheap airline anymore, and it’s not the underdog – it brought in a billion dollars in profit last year.

“Things have changed over the last few years, it is quite sad, you know when I started 19 years ago,” says Purinksi. “I was Greg Purinski Southwest Airlines ramp agent, and now I’m nothing more than 36425, which is my employee number.”

Kaplan says disgruntled employees can be bad for business.

“Definitely one of the things that customers have liked about Southwest over the years are those very friendly employees who sing to them during the safety demonstration and all those things,” he says. “So if the workforce really became far less happy overall than it once was, then yeah, that could affect customer perceptions of airlines.”