Several people took issue with my poking fun at Southwest Airlines in last week's column. My parody of French bashing back in May had me wondering if the American notion of humor was going the way of its civil liberties and good sense, but now I'm really nervous.
"So, you think it's funny to mock Southwest, even after you noted that there were very few critical comments of them? Forget that I think what you did was unfair; insulting Southwest was an incredibly lazy thing to do as a writer."
The emphasis on "lazy" is his. To answer the question: Yes, I thought it was funny. Isn't that the point sometimes, playing up a stereotype, affecting a little parody? It might not have been an Emmy-winning script, exactly, but "incredibly lazy"? Tough crowd.
Come on, if any airline is self-deprecating enough to absorb a waggish jab or two, it's LUV (to use Southwest's stock-ticker code, taken from its home base of Love Field in Dallas). This is an airline whose founder, Herb Kelleher, once arm-wrestled a rival to settle a trademark dispute. (It was a stunt, sure, but the airline biz could use a few more of those. Who wouldn't wanna see a grudge match between Continental's Gordon Bethune and Delta's Leo Mullin?)
But maybe I've been too harsh. Let's take a look through the archives and see which insults I've slung against Kelleher's brainchild:
Ouch, there's "cattle car" a few times. Predictable and not very original. And there's my roasting of the revised paint scheme, which includes this: "A Southwest jet looks like an overly rich dessert concocted by a starving child ... a vision of peyote-induced lunacy." Now that's pretty mean. I just saw one of Southwest's commercials and thought the plane looked pretty cool. However, if I'm dinged out of a prime-time stupor one more time and reminded that I'm "now free to move about the country," I will need to be institutionalized.
Wait, another LUV shareholder -- I mean, random allegiant customer -- has just written...
"I feel that I must write in defense of Southwest Airlines. They have never claimed to be anything more than they are -- a no-frills, discount way to fly."
Sure, but that's exactly what I said in my column. I believe I accused Southwest not only of mixing overly colorful shades of red and blue paint but also of having "perfected the art of get-what-you-pay-for satisfaction," which is precisely what the above comment implies.
And good for them. As an airline employee -- especially one riding out the doldrums of a protracted furlough -- it would be idiotic of me to criticize Southwest's successes at making air travel as affordable and popular as possible. While I lament a lack of dignity in today's cabins, I am not exactly nostalgic for the pomp and castelike constraints we knew in the 1950s. As it stands, the U.S. domestic air system is an important testament to our democracy and personal economic autonomy. Some might say the Airline Deregulation Act of 1979 is the more appropriate reference, but either way it's without irony that the airline deems itself "a symbol of freedom."
I'm all for an egalitarian system of transport. But that doesn't mean I must tolerate lousy service, chaos and screaming infants. Well, it does, I suppose, because by virtue of the above it has to, but only to the point when dignity and accessibility begin to rapidly diverge. At this threshold, access and low fares are no longer a good tradeoff for small discomforts. And that divergence is the crux of any glib remark I've made about Southwest. At some point easy access and low fares are no longer a good tradeoff for inconvenience. Which isn't to say every Southwest flight is chaotic, uncomfortable or jammed with crying babies. When all is said and done, Southwest is probably no worse than anyone else. Moreover, if the tickets are inexpensive, and because of that you're inclined to demand less than you would aboard Delta or United, then everyone is happy. Unless Southwest is the harbinger of a time when we can't get classy travel even if we're willing to pay for it. Which brings us back to the mastery of you-get-what-you-pay-for.
Let's all have a drink -- something domestic, cheap and served in aluminum -- to the unpretentious glory of Southwest Airlines.
It could be worse. LUV is hardly the worst low-fare airline we've known. That dubious honor probably goes to the almost forgotten People Express, which also took on the self-imposed indignity of being based at Newark.
The low-fare, no-frills concept has been around longer than we tend to acknowledge, and it does not guarantee success. This is something old-timers like Southwest and newcomers like JetBlue are well aware of. The latter, by the way, proudly accepts the "low fare" description but shuns the expression "no frills." Whatever you call it, nothing better illustrates the precariousness of this strategy than the rise and fall of People Express.
People Express grew from its inception in 1981 to become the fifth-largest U.S. airline and the fastest-growing one in history, having spun a network connecting both coasts and onward to Europe. By late 1986, its profits destroyed by mismanaged hyperexpansion, the airline was bankrupt. It was purchased on its deathbed by the infamous Frank Lorenzo and integrated into Continental. (That airline's Newark hub, which thrives today, was built on the wreckage of People Express.)
Interestingly, People did something no budget airline has done since, which was expand into the high-stakes international market. The carrier began running scheduled 747 service from Newark on the east coast and Oakland on the west, to London and Brussels. The New York City-London market is one of the most competitive in the world.
An audacious move, but even they weren't the first. The Brits had tried this in the late 1970s, when Freddie Laker's namesake airline was making news. Sir Freddie, a high school dropout who employed the same kind of entrepreneurial flamboyance that would later make Richard Branson famous (and get him knighted, as well) launched the Laker Airways "Skytrain" between London/Gatwick and New York in 1977. President Carter, prepping for his deregulation move, gave his blessing after Laker spent six years petitioning. People stood in line for hours to buy a $236 round trip, and Laker configured his DC-10s with bone-crushing 345-seat cabins.
The transatlantic forays of both Laker Airways and People Express were short-lived, and today neither airline exists.
Southwest, now flying into its fourth profitable decade, has always bristled at the idea of adapting its business model beyond American borders, and probably smartly so. Low fares, high frequencies, and streamlined all-economy services don't lend themselves to long-range operations and European accents. If any of our current batch of new entrants goes this way, I'd put my money on JetBlue, but even that is a long shot.
Speaking of upstarts, last week I mentioned my first-ever sighting of a Hooters Air jet. If Southwest represents, for better or worse, the Wal-Martification of American flight, then Hooters Air represents... something else.
Currently operating between Atlanta, Baltimore, Myrtle Beach and Newark, Hooters isn't actually an airline. Its fleet -- if we can call two pre-owned 737s such -- is leased from something called Pace Air and flown by contract crews. This may or may not excuse pilots from wearing orange shorts, but I can't find any pictures.
This is an airline begging not only for some only-in-America incredulity, but some smarmy humor too, and I knew I could count on subscribers at Salon -- a decidedly non Hooters-going crowd if ever there was one -- to provide it. It was only a matter of a few hours before the first Hooters Air joke appeared in my mailbox. It came from David Bainbridge of Shrewsbury, Mass., and it goes like this:
"In the unlikely event of a water landing, your flight attendant may be used as a flotation device."
That's definitely funnier than my smart-ass lazy crack about Southwest, though Bainbridge himself doubts he was the first to compose it. He also points out that Hooters would probably use the less politically correct "stewardess."
In fact, and while I don't mean to spoil the nice joke, both cockpit and cabin are staffed by Pace Air employees. But not to worry, because two token "Hooters Girls," on loan from the chain's restaurants, are strategically carried aboard each flight. What they do aboard each flight isn't entirely clear, and I'm uncertain if this represents a promotion or demotion in the career of a Hooters Girl.
Before you sneer, remember that the flight attendants at Singapore Airlines, one of the world's most respected carriers, are still known colloquially as "Singapore Girls." And a few of you might even recall the racy "Fly Me" ad campaign of the old National Airlines, a U.S. major that merged with Pan Am in 1980. "I'm Debbie," a prettily depicted National stewardess would say. "Fly me to Miami."
The Hooters slogan is a little less provocative. "Easy to Buy, Fun to Fly," it says, and I guess that's a philosophy tough to take issue with.
The aircraft -- a pair of old 200-series 737s that can accommodate 120 passengers -- are outfitted with 112 blue leather seats. The company calls its extra-legroom cabin "Club Class," a brand once used by British Airways for its business class. Hooters Air is about as far from British Airways as a Hooters restaurant is from a banquet at Buckingham Palace, but its planes are probably a lot more comfortable than most majors'. And for some reason I envision a copy of Maxim magazine in every seat pocket.
(It's interesting to compare the cultural low, if you will, of a start-up like Hooters Air, with the edgy sophistication of, say, Virgin Atlantic. If it's Maxim in the pockets of a Hooters Air 737, it's probably Esquire in the upper-deck cabin of a Virgin 747.)
Hooters Air reports unprecedented numbers of passengers requesting aisle seats and claims this is "for the scenery." Window seat passengers have a view of mountains, while on the aisles it's... I promised myself I wouldn't do this. Only one of the views is real.
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