Southwest Airlines for decades has built a
reputation as America's preeminent low-fare carrier, but a study due out this
week from airfare auditing firm Topaz International concluded that reality only
occasionally conforms to that perception.
Based on an audit it completed in November
2012 examining 100 major domestic city pairs, Topaz found that "competing
airlines were lower than Southwest Airlines over 60 percent of the time."
In other cases, the carrier's fares either
were the same or lower than the competition, which included both legacy
airlines such as American and United and such other "low-cost
carriers" as Spirit and Frontier.
"This result is surprising given the
perception in the marketplace, and with many travel managers, that Southwest
Airlines is in fact the low cost carrier in all markets they serve,"
according to Topaz.
However, the cost of flying on Southwest
becomes more favorable for travelers who check bags, since the airline has
resisted matching its largest competitors in charging extra to check the first
or second pieces of luggage.
If travelers check one bag, Southwest is a
better deal 60 percent of the time, Topaz determined. When checking two bags,
"Southwest Airlines is almost always a better option in the 100 markets
analyzed," beating competitors on pricing in such instances 88 percent of
Topaz noted that it's an important
distinction for corporate travelers, since it is "unlikely for a business
traveler to be checking two bags." Many avoid even checking one.
Topaz studied only "comparable
flights" between Southwest and its competitors, keeping constant such
factors as the origin and destination airports and whether the itinerary was nonstop
or involved connections.
In conducting its audit, Topaz first
priced itineraries on Southwest's website, then compared competitors' like
itineraries on public online travel agency sites, including Expedia and
Travelocity, and the competing carriers' own websites. The firm also examined various dates of travel—"all
based around a typical business trip," with a focus on departure times
around 9:00 a.m. and returning flights around 5:00 p.m. "Overnight stays
could be as short at two nights in a destination, up to five nights,"
according to Topaz's methodology.
Topaz said the study was independently conducted and not sponsored by
Southwest did not immediately reply to a request for comment
on the study's findings.