Southwest Airlines takes flight fare fight to the Web

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Southwest Airlines wants its best-price identification to extend into cyberspace. To spotlight its own Internet business, the airline rolled out TV spots advising those seeking travel deals online who have not visited Southwest.com that they may be missing a deal.

"In a way, we're planting a seed of doubt so people think, `Maybe I'm not getting the best fare. Maybe I need to check Southwest.com,' " said Audrey Pudder, account supervisor at longtime Southwest agency GSD&M, Austin, Texas.

FORGET THE HYPE

The ads began running Sept. 17 during NFL broadcasts and are expected to continue through the fall. Southwest wouldn't disclose spending on the effort, but the airline spent $112.7 million in measured media in 1999, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

The campaign takes direct aim at general travel sites such as Expedia.com and Lowestfare.com, as well as Lastminutetravel.com and Priceline.com. Addressing the perception among some Internet neophytes that all fares on the Web are good ones, Southwest counters, "Don't believe the hype."

"Just because someone says it, doesn't make it true," voice-over says. "So if an Internet travel site says it has the lowest fare, don't believe it. Go to the source: Southwest.com."

The three spots each present disastrous situations that result from a false statement. In one, a man is urged to brand a horse and told the animal is harmless. In another, a woman is told parasailing is risk-free. Each spot shows the individuals wearing neckbraces.

Unlike some airlines whose flights are available on their own Web sites and a host of other general sites, Southwest's inventory can only be accessed via its site and Travelocity.com.

Along with Northwest Airlines, Southwest -- which says its Internet travel bookings have increased almost 100% from last year -- has been at the forefront of the emerging trend of airlines spending considerably to drive people to Web sites.

On one level, the airlines are simply following consumers. A recent report from the Travel Industry Association found the number of travelers using the Internet in trip preparation has ballooned 190%, from 29 million in 1996 to 85 million in 1999.

COST SAVINGS

Cost saving is also a factor. Estimates show direct bookings via the Web cost an airline $1, while going through an airline reservation agent costs $5 and bookings via travel agents cost $10.

Southwest generates more revenue from direct Internet sales than any other airline, in part because it does not rely on travel agents as much as some competitors. Earlier this month, the airline said Southwest.com had generated more than $1 billion in revenue through August of this year, comprising 30% of its passenger travel. Web-based bookings have increased 96.2% over the first eight months of 1999, while revenue from Web-based bookings has jumped 111%, according to the airline.

Two additional spots are planned for this fall trumpeting Southwest's "Click 'n Save" option, which offers special low fares available solely via Southwest.com. An initiative will be launched on college campuses to reach students with a message referring to Click 'n Save as "the ramen noodles of airfares," playing off the budget food that's become a popular dorm room staple.

IMPOLITE BEHAVIOR

The "Click 'n Save" spots show examples of "low" or impolite behavior: a driver scaring away pigeons an old man is feeding; a kid turning on a water sprinkler, drenching a man in a meditative pose. On-screen text following each act reads, "That's low." But not as low as the Click 'n Save fares.

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