Talking to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly About New Airplanes, International Flying, More

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly was one of the featured speakers on the airline CEO panel at NBTA earlier this month. After his talk, he took a few minutes to sit down with me, Johnny Jet, and Dan Webb (from Things in the Sky) to answer any questions we might have. I’m not sure how, but this draft fell through the cracks and didn’t get published. I still think Southwest CEO Gary Kelly and His iPhone at NBTAit’s relevant and interesting, so, here are the highlights.

Johnny kicked off the questioning, and he asked about international plans.

Gary stated, “We definitely have plans to go international. Our first foray will be with our codeshare partners. I wouldn’t put any limits on our route system. All of those near international destinations [are possible].”

If you heard the recent news by ATW that Southwest said it would be going to long haul international, you can forget that for the foreseeable future. That was just not true.

Then Dan took a swing at some questions. He asked about Frontier’s Lynx operation. Since Southwest had first said it wasn’t interested in Lynx but then changed its mind, did that mean we might see Q400s in Southwest colors?

Gary brushed that off. “That was just live analysis that was taking place. . . . I told folks that we don’t have a vision for a regional jet operation. In the Frontier case, it’s there, so while it doesn’t fit with our vision, we’d have to deal with Lynx. It was very important in terms of the communities they serve.”

When Dan pressed him about the chance of the Q400 actually entering the fleet, Gary was firm. “It’s a pretty easy answer. Unless there’s some special set of circumstances, the answer is no.”

Bummer. Then the question was expanded to ask whether they would consider other aircraft manufacturers to supply their fleet.

Gary gave a somewhat cryptic response. “We’ll need to continue to keep our options open in the future in terms of fleet types. We’d love to keep flying Boeing exclusively, but that’s not a requirement.”

I took that to mean that they would like Boeing to think that they could go elsewhere but in reality, that won’t happen.

I chimed in and asked if they were thinking about other models of the 737, including the shorter 737-600 or (more likely) the longer 737-800 and 737-900.

Gary said no. “There’s no thought at this point . . . . We’re continue to evaluate whether a bigger airplane would serve us well but there’s not much effort underway. We’re hard-wired for 3 flight attendants – the fourth [as required for larger aircraft] becomes a technology issue and then why do you need it? . . . . I don’t think we’ve stretched the limits yet of the -700. We want to be very innovative. I think in the next year or two we may have a couple experiments along those lines.”

Interesting. I do wonder what it means to stretch the limits. Hawai’i? Caribbean? Unclear.

Gary confirmed that he didn’t see the airline’s seating policy or boarding process changing anytime soon, but there will be a Rapid Rewards relaunch as well as a next generation coming next year.

I closed the time there with a question about Denver. It’s been unprofitable so far, so would they change any plans now that they lost the Frontier bid?

Gary got a little defensive here. “No. A lot of [those comments] were misguided. All new markets have a period of development. It has been the most successful city startup so far in the history of Southwest.”

By “successful,” I believe he’s referring to the fastest ramp-up. I’m pretty sure they aren’t measuring that based on profitability. But since then they’ve added more Denver service, so clearly the plan hasn’t changed.

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