Southwest Airlines Co.
plans to offer faster Wi-Fi, bigger overhead bins and in-seat power ports for the first time, as airlines compete to attract customers returning to travel.
Airline executives said they hope the $2 billion of upgrades would be particularly attractive to business travelers, as Southwest makes a play to gain a bigger share of the corporate travel market.
Southwest, which allows travelers up to two checked bags at no cost, had stuck with the standard overhead bins for carry-ons until now, but Southwest Chief Executive
said the prospect of running out of bin space is still a pain point for customers.
“Any way you can stress out of that, which obviously the higher capacity bins do, the better,” he said.
Airlines have been bringing back prepandemic amenities like onboard drinks, and taking other steps to appeal to corporate travelers and others willing to pay up for premium features like extra leg room as the pandemic recedes and travelers take long-delayed trips.
Companies are starting to put employees back on the road after two years, and airline executives say a corporate travel rebound is under way, with business travel revenues climbing back to 70%-to-80% of 2019 levels.
United Airlines Holdings Inc.
last year announced a large aircraft order that it said would help it add more premium seats. It is outfitting its new and existing planes with larger overhead bins and screens in seat backs.
Delta Air Lines Inc.’s
chief executive, told reporters last week that the airline has found customers––even leisure travelers––are willing to pay up for higher-end offerings, so much so that returning corporate travelers often find competition for the seats they are used to. “We’re not holding the seats for them,” Mr. Bastian said.
Southwest has often taken a different approach to passenger experience than many rivals. It doesn’t have first class seats, airport clubs or fancy meals, steering clear of marketing its flights as a luxurious experience. But by offering low fares and spurning fees for things like checked baggage and flight changes, Southwest has grown into the largest carrier of domestic passengers and one of the most popular, frequently earning high scores in customer satisfaction surveys.
Southwest ranked the highest in the economy category in J.D. Power’s annual North American airline-passenger satisfaction survey, released Wednesday. But overall passenger satisfaction fell sharply across the board, J.D. Power found, amid higher fares and fuller planes.
Southwest executives said this week their research and polling has shown that fast internet, power outlets at seats to charge devices and feeling confident they’ll be able to store carry-ons overhead are important to many customers.
Southwest said its investment was included in its previously announced spending plans for coming years.
The airline’s improvements involve several new features, some of which it has been evaluating since before the pandemic decimated travel demand in 2020.
It plans to upgrade in-flight internet offerings to offer faster connections.
The airline will have installed new hardware on 50 of its aircraft by the end of May, and is temporarily offering free internet on some flights in an effort to evaluate how well the improved service holds up with large volumes of passengers using it. Southwest currently offers internet access for $8 a day.
The airline will also install USB power outlets at every seat on its MAX jets starting next year. Rivals have been adding power outlets at seats for years as customers have become increasingly concerned about keeping devices charged, though not all airlines offer them throughout the entire cabin or on every aircraft type.
Bigger overhead bins with more room for carry-ons will start arriving on newly delivered planes next year. Airlines including United and American have been adding the larger bins in recent years as they seek to streamline the boarding process and avoid the logjams that result when bins fill up and some passengers are forced to check their bags at the gate.
Southwest had previously announced plans to launch a new type of ticket with some additional perks, such as the option to cancel flights and give the credit to a friend. Southwest said Wednesday that the new fare type will become available this month.
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