Southwest has finally decided it’s time to invest in its onboard product again. Yesterday, the airline announced it would spend more than $2 billion on a whole bunch of different projects. This is long overdue since Southwest’s product has lagged for years. It’s arguably not enough, but it’s not easy to get everything done when you fall behind the way Southwest has, so this is unquestionably a good step forward. It’s also a solid sign that the new CEO is going to lead the team to make some different decisions.
The list of improvements is long, though some are obviously more important than others.
- Upgrading wifi equipment on existing aircraft to get up to 10x the current bandwidth with 50 aircraft ready by the end of this month and 350 by the end of October.
- Start installing new ViaSat wifi systems on new deliveries beginning this fall.
- Install USB-A and USB-C power outlets in each seat on all MAX aircraft.
- Adding larger overhead bins on new aircraft deliveries starting next year.
- Allowing travelers to purchase A1-15 boarding positions on mobile phones by end of summer instead of having to do it at the gate.
- Letting people add lap children to bookings online will occur at some point “on the horizon.”
- Bloody Mary mix will be stocked onboard this summer with some sort of “ready-to-drink cocktail,” a hard seltzer, and rosé this fall.
- By the end of this year, Southwest will double the number of free movies it has available for streaming.
- By the end of this month, the flight map will be updated “to provide 3-D views that offer aircraft information.”
It’s a long list, but I think we can all agree that some of these matter a lot and some are pretty irrelevant. Obviously the most important development is the improvement in the moving map, right? The rest is unimportant.
Ok, ok, let’s be serious. There are two enhancements that matter far more than anything else: wifi and power. The big bins would follow that.
Onboard power is something that Southwest has needed for AGES. I started searching my archives and I’ve mentioned it many times over the last decade. It was nearly 15 years ago that Southwest announced instead of power, it would roll out… outlets in gate areas. It stubbornly stuck to this strategy for far too long, even as it began flying long-hauls to Hawai’i with countless devices running out of juice along the way.
The good news is that Southwest has finally reversed course. The bad news is that this is what’s being installed.
Just kidding, just kidding. But would you have been surprised if Southwest went with one of the old cigarette-style DC outlets? Could have pulled a bunch of them off of American’s MD-80s in the desert. Just think how much that could have saved.
Instead, Southwest has still skimped to some extent, not going with full AC outlets and instead going with USB-only, albeit with 60w so it can power bigger devices. It is also only putting these on the MAX aircraft for now, but those are the airplanes that need it most, flying the longest distances.
I assume the idea here is that these new lighter systems that are USB-only will save weight and cost less. It’s obviously perfectly good for phones and even some laptops now, but the world isn’t quite there yet. Presumably Southwest is betting that by the time it finishes the retrofit in 150 years, AC power won’t provide any benefit over USB. (It’ll actually be done way sooner than that since this is only the MAX fleet.)
The other big news is the wifi. Southwest may have been an early adopter of wifi, but its system has been terribly slow on a good day and completely non-functioning on a more normal day. Yeah, yeah, it varies depending upon how many people are using the system and all that, but in a day and age where I can fly Spirit and have fast wifi or pay a bit more for full streaming bandwidth, Southwest was far, far behind. That’s being kind.
The solution here appears to be to upgrade equipment to get more bandwidth to each airplane… at least, it’ll go to 350 airplanes this year. If this is truly 10x more bandwidth to each airplane, it will actually become functional.
Getting ViaSat on some new deliveries will make a difference as well. ViaSat works well on a variety of airlines today, but to me what matters here is that this will make Anuvu — the current name of Row 44 turned Global Eagle that provides Southwest’s wifi today — feel the heat of competition. They’ll have to improve or risk losing more of the business. And Southwest’s business is a huge chunk of the customer base.
Even though this doesn’t give me everything on my wish list, it is a huge step forward that will make a very big difference for travelers on Southwest. Taking a step back here, I find it very interesting that this is happening not long after Gary Kelly stepped down as CEO.
Though I can’t know this for sure, it feels like Gary stepping aside and Bob Jordan moving in as CEO has cleared the logjam that will allow Southwest to start doing important things like this that have been on ice for years. It’s a very encouraging sign that things are changing for the better.