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Rudy's View: Lovin' Southwest Airlines (5/18/2001)

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It's fashionable to bash commercial airlines these days, and I've certainly done my share of it. But there IS an airline that offers cheap fares and has a pretty good on-time record. And its staff is often in such a good mood, flying the airline sometimes resembles dropping in on a party, even when every seat is taken.

That airline is Southwest. I was reminded of its virtues when I flew round trip this week between Albany, New York, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The advance purchase fare was $105 round trip, about $250 less than if I'd flown US Airways out of Washington's Reagan National airport.

Nearly every seat was taken on my outbound flight, and the plane was 100 per cent full on my return. No one seemed to mind. The airline's founder, Herb Kelleher, has infused his staff with such team spirit that it doesn't matter that there are no assigned seats; you board in the order you arrive at the gate. There's no first or business class, no movies, and no food-only peanuts and drinks. Kelleher steps down as CEO in a few weeks, but I'm betting his legacy will linger, especially since he will stay on for at least three years as chairman of the board.

As we landed in BWI, a flight attendant sang us a welcome and reminded us that if we married one of his single colleagues, we'd fly free. He also noted that we were landing ten minutes early - "Tell your friends," he said, "'cause I know you tell 'em when we're ten minutes late!"

So when I hear Steve Wolf of US Airways tell Congress he doubts the long-term viability of his airline if its deal with United doesn't go through . . . and when I hear other airline execs say it's just too difficult to expect cheery service with a smile in this era of crowded skies, airports and planes, I think of Southwest. It's not all things to all people-I don't choose it for cross-country travel, for example, even if the fare is only $99 each way. But Southwest does short and medium hops very well. With an attitude that it takes an enlightened corporate culture to cultivate. The big boys would do well to emulate at least that last point.

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