Southwest Media Day: Wifi Pricing, Newark, Volaris, AirTran and More

Good morning from the big D (that’s Dallas, ya’ll). I spent yesterday with the good people of Southwest at their sometimes-annual Media Day. There were a few announcements, but instead of diving into everything, I thought I’d just do an overview today. Look for more next week.

Bag Cop Academy

As you can see, the theme of Media Day was centered around Bags Fly Free. We all had mugshots taken and used those as our name tags. We also were given this graduation certificate from Bag Cop Academy at the end of the day. Kevin Krone, VP Marketing, Sales and Distribution even walked into the first session with his Bag Cop badge and mirrored sunglasses. He then went on to talk about the success of the program, but I’ll cover that more next week. Let’s look at the other highlights.

Wifi Now $5
For a long time, Southwest has said it’s experimenting with pricing for wireless internet. Yesterday, the announcement was made that it would be a flat $5 per flight regardless of distance and type of device (phone vs laptop).

Today, there are 32 airplanes equipped with wifi (maybe 31 since the one they trotted out for us yesterday didn’t actually work when we booted up), and there will be 60 by the end of this year. The 737-700s will be done by the end of 2012 and the 737-300s that are getting this (126 of them) will be done by mid-2013.

I like the flat rate per flight and $5 seems fair, but people obviously aren’t going to log on during those famous Southwest 1 hour flights, right? Well, maybe. Southwest has created a login portal that’s actually free. To start, it will have a moving map of your flight, access to, and shopping with HSN and SkyMall. So there still is a reason to boot up, even if you don’t want to pay. (I particularly like the moving map.)

I asked if people would be able to look up whether their flight would have wifi or not, and they said that won’t be until next year. People traveling on wifi flights now, however, do get emails the day before if they’ve given Southwest their email addresses.

Newark to Chicago and St Louis
Southwest will eventually have 18 daily flights out of Newark, and yesterday, CEO Gary Kelly told us about the first 8. Six will go to Chicago/Midway and I can’t imagine that’s a surprise to anyone. What is a bit more surprising is that the other two initial flights will go to St Louis. Both begin March 27.

I spoke at length with Bob Jordan, EVP of Strategy and Planning about the St Louis decision, and the thing that stuck with me is that this allows one stop flights to Dallas. Remember, until the Wright Amendment goes away, Chicago can’t go nonstop to Dallas but St Louis can.

This is also just part of the Newark story. The schedule was already closed, so Southwest had to reopen it and find a way to squeeze Newark in. This is what worked. We’ll see more to fill out the rest of the slots soon.

Volaris Partnership Finally Begins
After two long years, the Volaris partnership will finally go into effect for booking on November 12 and flying beginning December 1. This isn’t a codeshare but it’s as close as the two can get with existing technology at Southwest.

I’ll actually go into much greater detail on this next week, but it’s safe to say that this does open up new connecting opportunities but not nearly as much as I imagine it should. Still, it’s a step forward and that’s a good thing.

The 737-800 and Hawai’i
CEO Gary Kelly spoke at length about the 737-800 and the impact it will have if Southwest decides to order it (still hasn’t happened). He said it does open up Hawai’i as a possibility and it also allows Southwest to operate flights with lower unit costs which could be important in some markets. Could be an interesting airplane when it happens, and even though Gary said the decision hasn’t been made, it sounded like it really had been.

AirTran Update
You’re probably wondering about the AirTran merger, but there wasn’t really any news around that. Since the merger isn’t complete, they can’t really start sinking their teeth into things just yet. So all the juiciest questions went unanswered.

Bob Jordan did say that he thinks Atlanta has the potential to be the largest city in the Southwest system. COO Mike Van de Ven also went into detail on the 717 and how it has good trip costs for short trips, something that Southwest needs to serve small cities.

There was a ton more during the day but these were the biggest news highlights. Next week, I’ll be writing more about this here and on BNET with more in-depth looks at what’s happening.

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