Southwest Airlines adding faster WiFi, power ports as part of $2 billion in inflight upgrades

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Power outlets for personal devices. Better inflight WiFi. Bigger overhead bins for carry-on luggage.

Southwest Airlines pledged to make the inflight experience better for travelers on Wednesday, unveiling what it said is a $2 billion plan to “transform the customer experience.”

“We have a great product combined with terrific employees delivering terrific service, but there is a lot that we can continue to do to meet our customers’ and our employees’ expectations,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said to TPG about improvements.

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The timing is right to double down on passenger initiatives as the travel rebound picks up steam, Jordan said.

“We’re coming out of the pandemic. The demand is really strong,” he added, noting Southwest’s “very strong balance sheet … enabled us to continue to work on these things while were in the pandemic so that we can launch them now.”

Here are the highlights of Southwest’s customer service announcement.

Inflight WiFi improvements

Southwest says big upgrades are in store for inflight WiFi. The airline plans to upgrade its existing service as well as add a new provider – Viasat – to its mix of service options.

Southwest will start with current provider Anuvu. The carrier already has outfitted 40 of its Boeing 737s with Anuvu’s “latest-generation hardware,” offering free inflight WiFi on those planes as it tests the service. Specifically, the carrier wants to see how it performs with large numbers of customers using it simultaneously. Regardless of what that shows, there are plans to proceed. Southwest expects 50 planes to have the upgraded hardware by the end of May and 350 by the end of October.

Beyond that, Southwest will pivot to Viasat’s highly regarded — and faster — service on all of its newly delivered aircraft beginning this fall.

The move will spread Southwest’s inflight WiFi across two providers. Ryan Green, Southwest’s chief marketing officer, acknowledged that could create “a little bit” of complexity, but said the carrier wasn’t concerned.

“Having dual providers is very manageable,” Green told TPG. “And quite frankly, what we’re committed to and what we’re interested in is the end user experience. We want our customers to have a very high quality, high speed, reliable, experience when they connect to the internet. Who the providers are or what the technologies are behind the scene is, (that) should be seamless to the end of the consumer.”

For now, there are no plans to change the airline’s pricing for inflight Wi-Fi – currently $8 per day.

Power ports coming to Southwest planes

Power ports will soon be coming to Southwest planes early next year, when the carrier will begin to install USB A and USB C power ports at every seat on its Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.

The move will mitigate a pain point for electronics-toting Southwest customers, who currently must rely portable personal chargers to extend the battery life of their devices on longer flights.

“The first aircraft with power should enter our fleet very early next year,” Green said in a call with TPG. “We plan to have about 250 aircraft upgraded with power by the end of next year. Power’s going to be installed in every seat, in the seat back in front of you — so you don’t have to hunt for the power outlet behind and underneath your leg.”

Still, while customers are likely to welcome the move, not all will be able to count on inflight power. That’s because Southwest is not currently planning to add power ports to its non-MAX 737 aircraft – which still account for the bulk of its fleet of more than 700 planes.

For now, Southwest has now plans to retrofit older 737s — though Green acknowledge that’s an obvious follow-up question.

In the short term, Green said “we want to get it on board, see how it performs, see how customers use it … what their preferences are. And we’ll take all those additional questions up at a later time.”

Overhead bins

Southwest’s newest planes also will soon have larger overhead storage bins. The carrier will add Boeing’s “Space Bins” to its new MAX aircraft that will begin arriving early next year.

The airline isn’t giving up its “Bags Fly Free” marketing tagline, but says the larger bins will improve the inflight experience for those with carry-ons.

Broader Southwest initiatives

Southwest also teased other initiatives in its Wednesday announcement — some new and some already announced.

Among the new items is what Southwest said would be an expanded offering of both inflight beverages and streaming entertainment.

On the beverage front, Southwest said a new Bloody Mary Mix would roll out this summer to be followed by the September addition of a new “ready-to-drink cocktail.” Other new options will include hard seltzer and rosé on longer flights. For entertainment, Southwest said it would bolster its streaming entertainment lineup “to more than double the number of free movies currently available by end of year and coming late May.” Also coming is an update to the flight tracker that will provide 3-D views “that offer aircraft information and customized destination guides based on your flight itinerary.”

Additionally, Southwest said its newest fare type — dubbed Wanna Get Away Plus — is closer to rolling out. It was first announced in March, but is not yet on sale. The fare type will be Southwest’s fourth fare category, coming in just above it’s most basic “Wanna Get Away” fares. The “Plus” version will include perks like transferability for credit from canceled flights and the ability to make same-day flight changes to different flights on the same route.

Look for those fares to launch “in the next couple weeks,” Green said. “We’re finishing up the last bit of testing. We want to make sure that launch is as smooth as possible.”

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.

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