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Southwest Considering Onboard Food Sales

[[Southwest]] is apparently considering selling food aboard, representing a stark departure from the airline’s no-frills approach to flying. According to Bloomberg, a Southwest spokeswoman said food sales are “intriguing” and could become part of the carrier’s goal to add $1.5 billion in new, non-airfare revenue in 2010. The airline expects to decide by May if it will move forward with the plan, and prices and menus are yet to be determined.

Could the peanuts-or-pretzels airline really make a foray into onboard sandwiches and snack boxes? Hunter Keay, a Stifel Nicolaus & Co. analyst, told Bloomberg, “It’s a good decision. Airlines are chasing every incremental dollar they can these days given the declining demand.” Southwest, as you may already know, is struggling with demand and revenue, so it makes sense for it to add value to its service—and charge for it. The same logic applies to the carrier’s decision to test in-flight Internet: With airlines competing for fewer seats, it’s crucial to remain competitive in terms of amenities while searching for new revenue streams.

But Southwest selling sandwiches? Doesn’t that fly in the face of everything the “no-fee” airline is about? The short answer is “yes,” but the truer answer is “yes—sort of.” First of all, some free snacks will be retained, so passengers who are content with the existing bags of pretzels will not be abandoned. And while the new meal service will be a dramatic change from Southwest’s traditional service, the airline would likely point out that at least it’s not taking a formerly-free perk—checked bags, for instance—and slapping a fee on it. Meals would be an entirely new service and, consistent with the majority of its competitors, the airline would charge for it. It’s simple business.

Still, the fact that Southwest is considering onboard meals illustrates just how much the airline industry has changed over the past 18 months. Southwest loves to boast about its simple service, but the reality is that simplicity is essential to its success—it’s what allows Southwest to offer lots of daily flights, keep its fares reasonable, and minimize its fees. The more varied Southwest’s service becomes, the further it gets from the business model that has worked for so long. Southwest might even alienate some of its loyal fans as it becomes more like its competitors. But at this point, I’m not sure the carrier has a choice.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but I’m skeptical of this idea, even though it makes a lot of financial sense. What do you think? SmarterTravel readers have long expressed a fondness for Southwest, so I ask: Should Southwest stick with the formula that’s worked for thirty years, or would meal service elevate the Southwest experience? Leave a comment below with your thoughts. Thanks!

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