Southwest Airlines prides itself on being different from other carriers. Next month, it's going to have to highlight those differences when it starts flying out of Atlanta — home to Delta Air Lines and the country's busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International.
Southwest gained a foothold at Hartsfield after buying discount carrier AirTran last year. But winning over passengers could be a challenge.
The low-fare carrier also promotes itself as fun. There's a hit YouTube video from a couple of years ago in which passengers clap and tap their feet as a flight attendant raps the usually boring flight instructions. It's just the kind of unique experience Southwest likes to brag about.
"What's different about Southwest? Our legendary customer service, our low fares — all of that showcased by the people who make a real connection with our customers," says Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins.
Southwest doesn't have baggage fees or change fees, and that's a plus. But it doesn't have first-class or business-class seats — something most regular Delta business travelers expect. Hawkins says that shouldn't be a deal-breaker.
"We have all leather seating," he says. "We have open seating, we have orderly boarding, and, in droves, people are coming to Southwest Airlines for those reasons."
Big Challenge At Mega Airport
Ken Bernhardt, a marketing professor at Georgia State University, says Southwest has to have a couple of goals when entering the Atlanta market — primarily, retaining Air Tran customers. The second goal is even more challenging, he says: "They've got to get people to try it for the first time."
"Most people in Atlanta have never flown Southwest because they don't come into this market," Bernhardt says, "so they've got to get that initial trial."
Southwest has remained profitable because it turns planes around quickly and efficiently. Atlanta's mega airport presents a big challenge because it's often bogged down with long delays.
Still, Ray Neidl, an airline industry analyst with Maxim Group, says that shouldn't be a problem.
"They will have a little heartburn as they digest the Air Tran model, which was different, a little different than the Southwest model," he says. "But eventually, I think, it will be beneficial to Southwest."
A Delta spokesman says competition is nothing new, and the airline is confident its vast operation — which offers 1,000 flights a day to almost anywhere — will keep its customers. When Southwest starts serving Atlanta on Feb. 12, it will offer just 15 flights a day.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is almost always bustling. On a recent day, the rotunda underneath an enormous skylight is full of people waiting for flights.
Catherine Locker recently moved away from Atlanta for a new job, but she says she flies here often and is happy Delta will have competition.
"I think it's awesome because I live in Austin right now, and I'm always looking for cheap flights and I can never find them," she says, "so I'm grateful that they're coming to Atlanta."
But it's a tougher sell for Eric Goldschmidt, a Delta frequent flyer and Gold Medallion member.
"I'd be willing to try it," he says, "but I'm a Delta loyalist so switching over from one airline to another, it's going to have to be a big difference in fares."