Southwest Just Made a Big Promise to Its Customers

May 2nd 2017

Thor Benson

A video released last month showing a man getting dragged off of a United Airlines flight caused public outcry, and airlines have been scrambling to maintain a positive public face ever since. Last week, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly announced that his company will no longer overbook flights, which could have a major impact on the industry. 


"The last thing that we want to do is deny a customer their flight," Kelly said during an interview on CNBC. "We'll cease to overbook going forward. We've been taking steps over the last several years to prepare ourselves for this anyway."

southwest airlines

"Southwest is changing our policy and will no longer book flights over capacity as part of the selling process," Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said in a statement to USA TODAY. "As we have dramatically improved our forecasting tools and techniques, and as we approach the upcoming implementation of our new reservations system on May 9, we no longer have a need to overbook as part of the revenue management inventory process. The improved reliability allows us now to change Southwest's overbooking policy and enhance our customer-friendly hospitality, the over-arching philosophy at the heart of 45-plus years of success at Southwest."

The United situation has exposed major issues with commercial airline flights. Airlines typically overbook flights because they expect some people to miss their flights.

Samuel Engel, head of the aviation practice at the consulting group ICF International, told ATTN: that Southwest is actually in a unique position to stop overbooking flights. Engel said that most airlines give people little time to get to their connecting flight at the major airports they use for connecting flights, like Atlanta, but Southwest doesn't do that. 

"You'll have a whole lot of flights that land in Atlanta between 8 and 9, and then a whole bunch more that take off between 8:45 and 9:30," Engel said of most airlines. "If one flight is delayed, it's likely to result in a lot of missed connections." Southwest overall has fewer people missing flights because of difficult connections, according to Engel.

All of this means that while choosing not to overbook flights anymore isn't a hard choice for Southwest, since Southwest customers miss flights relatively infrequently, it would be much more difficult for other airlines that are accustomed to people missing flights and try to overbook to keep flights full. 

United announced at the end of last month that it will offer up to $10,000 to customers who agree to take a different flight if a flight is overbooked.

The issue of overbooking has gained so much attention that Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced a bill last month called the Customers Not Cargo Act that would make it illegal for airlines to kick customers off of overbooked flights. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) is introducing similar legislation in the House. Perhaps we'll see airlines improve for once.