New Southwest CEO on bag fees, change fees, assigned seats: 'It's not like we are changing the DNA of the company'


USA TODAY 23 June, 2021 - 06:08pm 21 views

Bob Jordan, a longtime Southwest Airlines executive set to become CEO in February, said he doesn't plan to change the company's DNA.

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From giving out a free Nintendo Switch to holding a hula hoop contest, Southwest Airlines has given passengers plenty of reasons to smile. USA TODAY

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly has been asked countless times over the past decade whether the airline might join its competitors in charging for checked bags.

His answers have ranged from never say never to, in recent years, an emphatic defense of its bags-fly-free policy in the face of billions in revenue rivals collect from checked-bag fees. At least a few times, he went so far as to say bags will remain free as long as he's CEO.

So Wednesday's announcement that Kelly is stepping down as CEO in February raises a key question for travelers: will bags still fly free?

Kelly's replacement, longtime Southwest executive Bob Jordan, had a quick reply in a brief interview with USA TODAY.

"I will say emphatically that we will not charge for bags,'' Jordan said. "And there will be no (ticket) change fees.''

Kelly joked that that he's not retiring or leaving the company as he will stay on as executive chairman until at least 2026.

"That's one of the beauties of this: Bob and I are very well aligned with our values, with our love for the company, with our embrace of the Southwest culture and certainly our attitudes toward customer service,'' Kelly said. "You will not see any bag fees.''

Despite references to a new era for Southwest in a memo sent to employees about the leadership change, Jordan said the company doesn't plan drastic changes. That was more a reference to the airline's next 50 years after its 50th anniversary celebration last week, he said.

"it's not like we’re changing the DNA of the company or the brand or something like that,'' he said.

Southwest has occasionally studied changing another one of its quirks: open seating. Instead of assigning seats, the airline assigns numbered boarding positions in three groups based on the time of online check-in and other factors, including frequent flyer status, ticket type or the payment of an early boarding fee. Passengers are free to pick any open seat when they board.

One of the assigned-seating studies, which Jordan led, led to the creation of the current boarding system in 2007. "You spoke and we listened! Southwest Airlines says open seating is here to stay,'' the airline said in announcing the decision.

Jordan said "every single time'' time the airline has studied changing its seating policy customers "generally prefer open seating.''

He didn't rule out testing assigned seat again, putting it in the same camp as other potential changes ahead, including the addition of new international routes. Southwest doesn't serve Europe, for example, focusing its international service in the Caribbean and Mexico.

"If it was clear that the need (for assigned seating) was there, that this was essential to our product, we would absolutely look at that,'' Jordan said.

Kelly, who has previously acknowledged Southwest's open boarding turns off some potential customers and said the airline's new reservations system gives it the capability to assign seats, said at the moment, however: "There's no work on that.''

Kelly and Jordan said Southwest is still working on new products or services that will boost revenue, hush-hush efforts they regularly touted before the pandemic without providing any details.

On Wednesday, Kelly said the projects are still not ready for "prime time'' but said two of them fit well with the resurgence of leisure travel. Southwest, like most airlines, has added flights to several vacation destinations to cater to pandemic travel trends.

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