The Southwest Airlines Business Model In A Nutshell

  • Southwest Airlines is a low-cost American commercial airline company founded by Herbert Kelleher and Rollin King in 1967. The company began operations in Texas at a time when interstate travel was heavily regulated.
  • Southwest Airlines makes money across three categories: passenger revenue, transport revenue, and revenue for ancillary services such as early check-in.
  • Southwest Airlines recorded profits for 47 straight years, with the streak only broken by the coronavirus pandemic. The success of the company in an industry with slim to non-existent profits is due to intelligent route selection, flexible seating, free checked baggage, and a point-to-point destination strategy.



Southwest Airlines origin story

Southwest Airlines is a low-cost American commercial airline company founded by Herbert Kelleher and Rollin King in 1967.

Kelleher and King developed the concept for Southwest Airlines in a San Antonio hotel bar. The original business plan was illustrated on a cocktail napkin with a triangle connecting the Texan cities of San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston.

Initially, the company operated flights within the state of Texas only. Federal authorities controlled interstate air travel in the United States at the time, deciding where an airline could fly and how much it could charge. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Southwest Airlines, enabling it to establish a strong presence in Texas where it was free to undercut competitors including Braniff and Texas International. During those early years, the company was also known for its ability to turn planes around in just ten minutes.

When President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Regulation Act on October 24, 1978, the company began introducing routes around the United States. A service between Houston and New Orleans was the first such route, with additional flights to Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque following in 1979. That same year, the company introduced self-ticketing machines to make the check-in process more efficient.

Over the following decades, Southwest Airlines stayed true to its low-fare brand. For a customer checking in two bags, the company claims its fares will be the lowest on offer in 87% of cases. Competition-beating prices are possible because Southwest operates Boeing 737s exclusively, enabling it to save money on training mechanics and pilots on a range of different aircraft. The company also prefers routes between smaller airports where taxes and gate access are more affordable.

Third-quarter operating revenue for 2021 was $4.7 billion, representing a 161% year-over-year increase. The company now services routes to over 100 destinations across the United States, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. 

Southwest Airlines’ Value Proposition:

  • Affordable Travel: Southwest is known for its low-cost airfare, making air travel accessible to a broader range of travelers, including budget-conscious individuals and families.
  • No Change Fees: The airline allows passengers to change their flights without incurring change fees, providing flexibility and convenience, which is especially valuable for business and leisure travelers.
  • No Baggage Fees: Southwest offers free checked baggage, reducing the overall cost of travel for passengers and eliminating the need to pay additional fees for luggage.
  • Open Seating: Southwest’s open seating policy means passengers can choose their seats upon boarding, promoting a stress-free and egalitarian boarding process.
  • Point-to-Point Routes: The airline’s point-to-point route strategy minimizes layovers and streamlines travel, reducing the chances of delays and making travel more efficient.
  • Customer-Centric Approach: Southwest places a strong emphasis on customer service and satisfaction, striving to create a positive and enjoyable flying experience.

Customer Segments:

  • Budget-Conscious Travelers: Passengers seeking affordable airfare options and the ability to save on travel expenses.
  • Business Travelers: Professionals who value flexibility and the option to change flights without incurring hefty fees.
  • Families: Families appreciate the affordability and baggage policy of Southwest, which can reduce the overall cost of family travel.
  • Leisure Travelers: Vacationers who prioritize cost-effective travel options and a hassle-free experience.
  • Travelers Seeking Convenience: Passengers who prefer direct flights and streamlined travel experiences without extensive layovers.

Distribution Strategy:

  • Official Website: The airline’s official website serves as a primary distribution channel, allowing customers to search for flights, make reservations, and manage their bookings online.
  • Mobile App: Southwest offers a mobile app for easy booking, check-in, and access to travel information, enhancing the convenience for travelers.
  • Travel Agencies: While Southwest primarily sells tickets directly, it also works with travel agencies and platforms to reach a broader audience.
  • Customer Service: Southwest Airlines maintains a strong customer service presence, providing support for travelers through various channels, including phone and email.

Marketing Strategy:

  • Low-Cost Messaging: The airline consistently promotes its low fares as a central marketing message, highlighting affordability as a key selling point.
  • Transparency: Southwest emphasizes transparency in pricing and policies, ensuring that customers are aware of the airline’s no-change-fee and no-baggage-fee policies.
  • Customer-Centric Messaging: Southwest markets itself as a customer-focused airline, emphasizing its commitment to providing a positive and enjoyable travel experience.
  • Advertising Campaigns: The airline runs advertising campaigns to showcase its low fares, flexibility, and the benefits of flying with Southwest.
  • Community Engagement: Southwest engages with communities through sponsorships and partnerships, fostering a positive brand image and connection with local markets.
  • Social Media Presence: The airline actively uses social media platforms to interact with customers, share travel updates, and address inquiries.

Southwest Airlines revenue generation

Southwest Airlines generates revenue by providing domestic and international airline services. 

Revenue is spread across three categories:

  1. Passenger revenue – or the sale of domestic and international airline tickets to travelers. 
  2. Transportation revenue – encompassing shipping and freight services, and
  3. Other revenue – derived from the sale of ancillary services such as early check-in and in-flight purchases. Unlike other airlines, Southwest does not charge premium seating fees and offers light refreshments such as peanuts and crackers for free. 


While the company uses a revenue generation strategy common to many airlines, its successful business model deservers further mention. Before the COVID-19 pandemic grounded planes around the world, Southwest Airlines made a profit for 47 consecutive years between 1973 and 2019. 

Despite operating in an industry where it is notoriously difficult to do so, the company has managed to not only survive but thrive. 

This has been achieved in the following ways:

  • Intelligent route selection – as noted in the previous section, the airline prefers to operate routes where airport taxes are minimal. It also chooses routes where it is more likely to sell every seat.
  • Flexible seating – Southwest doesn’t assign seat numbers to passengers. This means that if a plane is swapped out with a different seating configuration, the company doesn’t have to reissue boarding passes.
  • Free checked baggage – while most airlines charge for checked baggage, Southwest does not. Former Vice President of ground operations Chris Wahlenmeier explained the reasoning: “When you charge people to check bags they try to carry more on, sometimes more than can fit in the overhead bins. That results in more bags being checked at the gate, right before departure. And that wastes time.
  • Point-to-point destinations – lastly, Southwest flights are point-to-point. This means the plane lands, turns around, and travels back to where it came from. The point-to-point strategy is seen as less vulnerable to delays than flying into major hubs, which are connected to hundreds of different airports and experience heavy air traffic as a result. A simpler network also means the company wastes less time searching for lost luggage, with Southwest boasting a bag completion rate of 99.6%.

Key Takeaways

  • Southwest Airlines is a low-cost American commercial airline founded in 1967 by Herbert Kelleher and Rollin King.
  • Initially, the company operated within Texas due to heavy regulation on interstate travel, which allowed it to establish a strong presence in the state by undercutting competitors.
  • President Jimmy Carter’s signing of the Airline Regulation Act in 1978 enabled Southwest Airlines to expand its routes throughout the United States.
  • The company stayed true to its low-fare brand, operating exclusively Boeing 737s to save costs on training and preferring routes between smaller airports.
  • Southwest Airlines has been profitable for 47 consecutive years, with its streak only interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Revenue generation includes passenger revenue from airline ticket sales, transportation revenue from shipping and freight services, and other revenue from ancillary services like early check-in and in-flight purchases.
  • The airline’s success can be attributed to intelligent route selection, flexible seating arrangements, offering free checked baggage, and using a point-to-point destination strategy.
  • Southwest Airlines has expanded its services to over 100 destinations across the United States, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
  • The company’s point-to-point flight strategy contributes to a high bag completion rate of 99.6% and reduced vulnerability to delays compared to flying into major hubs.
  • Southwest Airlines places a strong emphasis on cost-saving measures and customer-friendly policies, which have contributed to its long-term profitability and success in the highly competitive airline industry.
Value PropositionSouthwest Airlines offers a compelling value proposition for its customers, including: – Low-Cost Travel: Providing affordable air travel options. – No Hidden Fees: Transparency in pricing with no hidden fees for baggage and ticket changes. – Customer Service: Friendly and efficient customer service. – On-Time Performance: Consistently high on-time performance and reliability. – Frequent Flights: Offering frequent flights to popular destinations. – Luggage Policy: Generous baggage policy with checked bags and carry-on allowances. – Flexible Booking: Easy booking and flexible ticket options. – Rapid Rewards Program: A popular loyalty program for frequent flyers.
Core Products/ServicesSouthwest Airlines’ core products and services encompass: – Air Travel: Operating domestic and international flights. – Frequent Flyer Program: Offering the Rapid Rewards loyalty program. – Cargo Services: Providing cargo transportation services. – Booking Platform: An easy-to-use online booking platform. – Customer Service: Delivering friendly and efficient customer support. – In-Flight Services: Basic in-flight amenities and refreshments. – Ground Services: Efficient ground services for check-in and baggage handling. – Code Sharing: Limited code-sharing agreements with partner airlines.
Customer SegmentsSouthwest Airlines serves a diverse range of customer segments, including: – Leisure Travelers: Attracting vacationers and individuals looking for affordable travel options. – Business Travelers: Catering to business professionals seeking cost-effective travel. – Frequent Flyers: Engaging with loyal customers who participate in the Rapid Rewards program. – Families: Providing family-friendly travel options. – Students: Appealing to students and young travelers with budget-conscious options. – Global Reach: Extending services to domestic and international travelers. – Travel Enthusiasts: Attracting individuals passionate about exploring various destinations. – Senior Citizens: Offering special discounts and considerations for seniors.
Revenue StreamsSouthwest Airlines generates revenue through various revenue streams: – Ticket Sales: Earnings from the sale of airline tickets. – Rapid Rewards: Income from the loyalty program and associated partnerships. – Cargo Services: Revenue from cargo transportation and logistics. – In-Flight Sales: Earnings from in-flight snack and beverage sales. – Wanna Get Away Fare: Additional income from fare options like “Wanna Get Away.” – Booking Fees: Fees for booking and ticket changes, including EarlyBird Check-In. – Partnerships: Earnings from co-branded credit cards and partner relationships. – Global Expansion: Potential revenue growth through international expansion.
Distribution StrategySouthwest Airlines employs a strategic distribution strategy to reach customers: – Online Booking: Encouraging customers to book flights through the official website. – Mobile Apps: Offering mobile apps for convenient booking and travel management. – Direct Sales: Promoting direct sales through Southwest’s website and reservation centers. – Travel Agencies: Partnering with travel agencies and global distribution systems. – Airport Presence: Establishing a strong presence at various airports. – Marketing and Advertising: Running marketing campaigns to promote low fares and services. – Customer Engagement: Building brand loyalty and customer engagement. – International Expansion: Exploring opportunities for international routes and partnerships.

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