The airline industry continues to bounce back from the devastation of the coronavirus outbreak, and Southwest Airlines is at the forefront of the travel resurgence.
Southwest Business Vice President Dave Harvey recently spoke with TravelPulse about a multitude of topics impacting both the airline and the entire industry, including business travel, COVID-19's impact on travel advisors and long-term changes implemented during the pandemic.
Here is the full Q&A session with Harvey:
TravelPulse (TP): Can you name some of the protocols or changes made during the pandemic that the company believes will become the new normal?
Dave Harvey (DH): Like everyone, I think the word of the decade will be 'pivot' because that's what we've been forced to do on an almost daily basis since onslaught of the pandemic. However, I think what sets Southwest apart is the willingness from our leaders to continue investing as other airlines are scaling back. In fact, in the last 20 months, we've added 18 new destinations to our route map and by the end of the year will be serving a total of 121 markets.
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The pandemic created opportunities that we seized and we're seeing really great results with these new destinations. We've also seen the importance of adjusting our network based on the ever-changing demand patterns of our customers. During the pandemic, demand was squarely focused on leisure-orientated destinations. Now, as business travelers return, we're in the process of restoring frequencies between key cities so that our point-to-point network continues to be a source of strength for travelers as they hit the road.
Our leadership has done an amazing job and we're so thankful for the work our people across the company are doing to continue connecting our customers to what's important in their lives.
TP: What effort have been made to assist travel advisors who previously worked with Southwest and were directly impacted by the pandemic?
DH: By far, our biggest improvement for our corporate travel advisors has been our entry into GDSs at an industry-standard level of participation. We've already heard from customers that they're seeing more bookings within the GDSs which improves compliance and people booking outside corporate travel policies.
Another significant step forward we took to help those impacted is additional flexibility and easy reuse of unused funds. We were able to implement solutions to make those tickets more easily accessible when their travelers take back to the skies. These new capabilities extend the value we provide travel programs beyond our low fares and point-to-point network.
TP: While leisure travel has started to rebound, business travel remains largely depressed. How has Southwest reacted to the massive drop in business traveler numbers and what efforts are being made to bring business travelers back?
DH: We're starting to see improvement among our business travel partners as offices reopen and definitely some great momentum heading into 2022. We know there's pent up demand for road warriors to get back out there and meet face-to-face with their clients and customers, and we're starting to see more and more travelers back on the road. Even I notice a difference traveling around our system today- there's definitely more business travelers hitting the road and that's a great thing to see. We hear it all the time that people who meet in person are much more productive and get to a better outcome than those who are conducting meetings via Zoom.
Prior to the pandemic, we set out to make it easier than ever for corporate travel partners to do business with Southwest. Historically, it had been hard to book travel as we weren't in the typical corporate travel booking channels and we made it our mission to bring all of our everyday low fares into their booking channel of choice- whether that's through the GDS, direct connect, or SWABIZ.
Earlier this year, we successfully completed the rollout of our GDS implementation and we're now offering business travel relevant content in all three major GDSs: Sabre, Travelport, and Amadeus, giving business travel decision makers the ability to book Southwest flights in the channel they prefer.
As we see demand come back, Southwest is hiring 5,000 people this year and that includes our team. We've increased the number of account managers and other support roles that are vital to the success of our customers and continuing to make Southwest easy to work with for our business travel partners.
It's been a busy 20 months but we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and I'm feeling optimistic about our future and welcoming back our customers.
TP: Southwest obviously went through major issues recently with a string of delays and cancellations. What is the airline doing to avoid situations like this from occurring in the future, especially as more people return to the skies?
DH: First, let me start by taking a moment to apologize to our customers that were impacted by these situations. We fell short of their expectations and our goal of delivering them to their destination on-time with our Southwest hospitality. Moving forward, we've made adjustments to our schedules heading into the holidays, and we continue working toward our goal of hiring more than 5,000 by the end of the year so that we can keep our people and planes moving and getting our customers to their destinations safely and on-time.