I’m not ashamed to admit it: I love SWA. The other day, “commuting” back to Orange County from the Bay Area, I was reflecting on how Southwest Airlines has increasingly deployed technology to make flying better, faster and cheaper than any of its competitors. My day began, simply enough, on the 6:45 am flight from John Wayne to San Jose, and I had planned to return that evening on the 5:15 pm flight from Oakland.
But this is how technology made all the difference: When my Friday afternoon meeting concluded earlier than I originally dreamed possible, I walked out to my rental car, voice-dialing Southwest reservations (“800-I FLY SWA”). Their message informed me that there would be an eight -minute wait, but that they could return my call to my cell phone, which would call me back after those same eight minutes. Already southbound on the 80, eight minutes later, as promised, another “tele-avatar” called me back to confirm I was on the line and available to speak to a real person. Assuring “her” I was ready, I was connected to Kathy.
In my haste to get to the airport, I’d left my pre-printed boarding pass (with my confirmation number on it) in the back seat, and now that I was driving, I couldn’t reach it. But Kathy patiently triangulated who I was with my name and flight information. Once she figured out that I was booked on a later flight (and how much I’d paid for my ticket), she went to work seeing if she could get me on the flight that would be leaving two hours earlier. Since the telephone reservation system shuts down 30 minutes before departure, she worked with seconds to spare. But, just in time, she booked my ticket, and charged me the extra $32.
By then I was about two miles from the airport, but still needed to return my rental car. Thanks to Budget’s handheld receipt printers, I was on the Rental Car shuttle within just a few minutes after cruising into OAK’s Rental Return lot. At the Terminal, I bee-lined for the check-in kiosk and punched in my six-digit confirmation number (from the old boarding pass, which Kathy had transferred to the new flight). Bingo! In 30 seconds I had my new boarding pass. Next stop: the “A line” – because of my A List status, I have a special card I can flash (better than the Clear card, because it doesn’t require biometric ID confirmation, which always used to slow me down) so I can zip through security lines (this alone saved me about an hour a couple of weeks ago at SFO).
By the time I arrived at Gate 26 they were already boarding the flight (Southwest has the best on-time record). But I easily stepped into my “B30” slot – which meant 89 people got to pick their seats first. (If I had booked or changed my reservation 24 hours earlier, I would have been guaranteed “A” seating – one of the first 60 seats. And, had I pounced on printing out my boarding pass 24 hours earlier, no doubt I’d have a very low number – sometimes as low as A16 – now that Southwest is selling “Business Select” seats at a premium, A1-15 are always unavailable.)
Once airborne, as I settled into my peanuts, I looked around and realized I was surrounded by people tethered to technology: Kindles, iPods and computers – working, watching movies, or playing games. Now all we need is for Southwest to get beyond the “trial’ they’ve been running with Row 44 to test a new broadband, high-speed satellite-delivered Internet access service, and make the service available to their commuters. Since apparently they plan to charge extra for this service, maybe I’ll even be able to trade in some of my growing stack of free drink coupons for an hour on the Internet. Now that would be something to drink to!