Southwest Airlines Just Made a Surprising Decision That Might Cause Some Flyers To Raise an Eyebrow (Or Two)


Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

I was woken by an earthquake last night, which slipped my mental cogs into the off-kilter position.

And I confess the cogs are still there after hearing of all the entertaining things that have happened this week in the airline world.

There were the two pilots on Jet Airways who became so heated with each other that one — a male — allegedly slapped the other — a female. Yes, inflight.

Then there was the Ryanair passenger who seems to have become frustrated with how long it was taking to get off the plane at Malaga airport. 

So he opened the emergency exit door and got out onto the wing.

But what about Southwest Airlines offering to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit accusing it, Delta, United and American Airlines of collusion?

No, they weren’t accused of conspiring with Russians in order to offer fake, inflated ticket prices. 

They were accused of insuring that there were never too many seats available, thereby offering artificially inflated ticket prices.

As I may have mentioned before, more than 80 percent of all airline seats in the U.S. are held by just four companies. The four companies accused in this lawsuit, coincidentally enough.

Were this an episode of Billions, you wouldn’t be surprised to see a little mutual self-interest being enacted on occasion, would you? 

But Billions is nothing life real airline life, where everything is all about the customer. 

For its part, indeed, a Southwest spokesman told me: “While we have always had full confidence in our ability to prevail in this case, we believe this decision is in the best interest of our company, employees and shareholders by allowing us to return our focus on doing what we do best — providing friendly, reliable, and low-cost service to our customers.”

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Well, of course. One can’t have customers who appreciate the friendly, reliable and low-cost service feeling even remotely suspicious.

Meanwhile, Delta, United and American all seem to say that they will fight for their integrity to the bitter end. 

As the L.A. Times reported, Delta is quite mad about the whole thing.

“The assertion that our success is due to anything more than the hard work of our people is not only ridiculous, it is offensive. The simple fact is that Delta has not engaged in any illegal behavior,” offered its statement, in part.

The whole affair stems from the period after 2009, when fuel prices were dipping.

Oddly, airline ticket prices didn’t seem to dip in tandem. 

Cut to 2015, when the Justice Department thought it would take a look at the airline business and its business of pricing. It gave up, finding nothing illegal. 

Stay in that year for a moment and you’ll apparently hear executives from the accused airlines using similar language to describe their strategies around providing more (or not) flights at a travel conference.

Cue more than 20 passenger lawsuits, which were all brought together for this one big legal action.

One might understand that Southwest — still smaller than the other members of the absolutely-not-a-cabal — would not want to keep spending money on litigation. 

What may, though, appear entertaining — should you be of the Billions mindset — is that as part of the settlement, Southwest has apparently agreed to help the plaintiffs by handing over information.

Bloomberg describes it as “a promise to help the plaintiffs make their case against the three remaining defendants: American Airlines Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., and United Continental Holdings Inc.”

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I contacted Southwest to ask for details of this magnanimity.

Its spokesman told me: “We will still have obligations under the settlement to provide information, however those requests will now be more limited and targeted.” 

Oh, once it gets into these arcane legal territories, my eyes glaze over in wonder. Which isn’t pleasant when my mental kilter is tilting.

Still, the core of such lawsuits — other than the possibility of lawyers seeing large fees — is the suspicion that there just isn’t enough competition in the airline world.

Wouldn’t you love it if there was just a little more choice when you fly? 

Me, I’d just love it if there was a fast train between, say, San Francisco and L.A. 

Would you believe that some say airlines have helped for that not to happen?


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