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

If I asked you to choose between flying the cattle car or the airline that's "Going for Great," which would you choose?

Oddly, a remarkable number of people choose the cattle car.

You see, that's how American Airlines CEO Doug Parker describes Southwest Airlines.

"Going for Great" is how he describes his own airline.

It's a fascinating juxtaposition, rooted, some might moot, in a confusion bordering on delusion.

Oddly, Parker has lately been trying to, well, mimic at least a little of Southwest's offering.

He's trying to standardize the configuration of his planes. Southwest only flies Boeing 737s that all feel the same.

Yet American's version means seat pitch (the distance between the back of one seat and the back of the one in front) that's down to 30 inches, reduced legroom even in First Class, no seatback screens, and bathrooms barely wider than Economy Class seats.

Here's something that rarely gets mentioned: Southwest has the same tiny bathrooms on its 737 MAX planes.

You don't, though, hear an outcry. That, as View from the Wing's Gary Leff recently pointed out, is because Southwest didn't make the rest of its plane inhospitable.

It didn't, for example, shrink its legroom to painful proportions.

Its seat pitch is 32 inches. And goodness, two inches on a plane can feel like two feet in real life.

It's easy to compare product features and conclude that some are better than others.

There's something more fundamental here. 

It's the strategic attitude toward the customer.

For American, it's What can we get away with? For Southwest, it's How can we keep them coming back for more?

When American introduced its 737 MAX planes, Parker freely admitted he'd never flown on one.

He didn't understand why this would upset anyone, as if a CEO trying his new product wouldn't seem, well, a fundamental thing to do. 

I was moved, therefore, when news seeped out that he'd finally flown on one--yes, in Economy Class--from Miami to Quito in Ecuador.

He said it was a nice main cabin experience--in line with U.S. carrier main cabin products with a couple of pleasant surprises. The overhead bins are large and it had a nice array of movies. But most of all, they had a great crew of Flight Attendants who kept customers happy.

If your strategic aim is to be "in line with U.S. carrier main cabin products," your ambition seems slight.

You're happy being Generican Airlines and trying to squeeze every single dime out of that strategy.

Would Southwest say it just wanted to be in line with its rivals? I wonder.

The airline understands the value not only of being different, but of using its points of difference to create a positive emotional bond with its customers.

It's inescapable to conclude that American's core approach favors lucre over anything else.

Southwest appreciates that the flow of lucre comes from customers who happen to be real human beings with feelings.

So if you make those human beings feel good, they're more likely not only to give you repeat business, but also to forgive you when things go wrong.

As I described when comparing American to Delta last week, some airlines have a brand identity that at least tries to focus on the customer, while other brands just, well, want the customer to show them the money.

Southwest doesn't charge baggage fees (for the first two bags). It doesn't charge change fees either.

Why? Because it knows that these things don't fit its brand character.

These things actually distinguish the airline and create a bond with humans who loathe the excessive nickel-and-diming so beloved by certain airlines.

American, on the other hand, seems to believe that any change, however painful, may be appropriate if it makes the airline money.

Recently, American's president, Robert Isom, confessed that the airline wouldn't improve things for customers unless it could make a profit from that particular thing.

The fact that American's executives are so open about their strategy is, in its way, charming.

They have extreme faith in their strong network, with dominant hubs in Charlotte and Dallas. 

But when you're confronted with the choice of flying American and many other airlines--including Southwest--what would make you actively choose American, other than its network?

Not comfort. Not customer service. And, I suspect, not your affection for the brand. 

I don't think American sees this as a problem.

Published on: Aug 27, 2018
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