Thursday, October 8, 2009

Southwest Airlines

Steve and Sarah are a bright young couple. Their jobs are based in Chicago, but they spend most of their time traveling. They awakened one day and realized that they could work from anywhere as long as they had computers and access to air travel. They approached their employers with their plans. Their employers agreed. Steve and Sarah traded their down jackets for flipflops.
I am sure you have heard the buzz about efforts to attract Southwest Airlines to Pensacola. What's it all about? What are the benefits? Well, the primary benefit is to air travelers. When Southwest enters a market, they typically offer two things: lower prices and more service.

When I was in college in the early 90s, it cost about $350 to fly roundtrip between PNS and Boston. As soon as AirTran came to Pensacola, the prices dropped considerably. And they have stayed lower than those of our nearest competitors. Lower prices are nice for each of us as individual travelers, but they also attract more travelers from across our region to our airport, lowering the per passenger cost of the overhead. In addition, tourists who want to come to a beach are also more likely to come here instead of Destin or Panama City Beach if the price is right.

The economic impact of Southwest goes beyond filling hotels and restaurants, though. The more people who visit, the more who will realize how attractive our community is and the more likely they will move their companies here. (A recent editoral in Florida Trend suggests that perhaps local chambers of commerce should just check resort guest lists to generate potential contacts--sometimes vacationers are some of the best recruits.) Beyond beautiful beaches, diverse recreation, rich history, vibrant arts and all of the quality of life our community offers, when we add a great airport with low fares and direct service to many cities Pensacola becomes increasingly attractive to business leaders and their employees. Southwest, then, is more than an airline--it is an economic engine.

Southwest will not displace other carriers--it will enhance the menu of services. Having Southwest in addition to AirTran will increase competition, helping to cement the low prices that we enjoy. They will also fly different routes, making it easier for us to reach our destinations (and easier for people around the country to reach us).

And, ultimately, Southwest is--in popular jargon--just cool. They have adopted a corporate culture that values the flying experience. They are hip, innovative, and fun. And if they choose us, maybe it suggests that we are, too.

What needs to happen to land (no pun intended) Southwest? Money is important. Panama City has put a big incentive package on the table, courtesy of St. Joe. We can't afford the same amount, but as a community we can pull together to attract them:
  • Escambia and Santa Rosa counties have pledged bed tax money.
  • The City has approved incentives for new routes at the airport and authorized the purchase of ground equipment for a new carrier.
  • And you can help too.
We need to show community commitment--they need to know that we want them and that we will fly Southwest if they come. Pledge to purchase a Southwest giftcard if they come to PNS. Support the cause on Facebook. Tell Southwest that you want their next destination to be Pensacola.

Even with all of this hoopla about Southwest, we need to remember that all of the incentives are great, but if folks don't buy tickets, they won't want to stay. When PNS recruited AirTran, they offered incentives. But AirTran has stayed because we are loyal. Please continue to support our local carriers and fly Pensacola.
Sarah and Steve bought and restored an older house on the west side of downtown Pensacola (where their taxes are a lot lower than they were in Chicago). They now are engaged in the life of our community. They pay taxes. They donate their time to charities. They add vibrancy to downtown. And as they travel, they are ambassadors for our city.
Southwest is more than low fares--it may help us recruit more Sarahs and Steves....