How Southwest Airlines used behavioural science to improve queuing times

A case study in applying rigour to customer engagement.

by Helena Rubinstein
Last Updated: 29 Oct 2019

Southwest Airlines is the inspiration for most of the low-cost airlines around the world, having been a beacon of success in an industry that is highly cyclical and not known for sustaining profitability. It has done so by combining high levels of efficiency with a hard-earned reputation for friendly service.

Back in February 2015, the innovation team at Southwest and our small team from Innovia Technology were sitting in a meeting room at the airline’s Love Field offices in Dallas, Texas, discussing an issue that the Southwest team had been thinking about for some time. 

"The thing is," said Heather Figallo, senior director of innovation at the airline, "the boarding process works fine, but it could be improved. We know that waiting to board the plane is a pain point for our customers and we want to make that better. At the same time, we want to make it faster. And whatever changes we make must reflect our values: everyone has the right to the same good level of service."

In short, Southwest wanted to speed up the boarding process to make it better for passengers and the airline. Boarding is not only an unpleasant experience for many passengers, it’s also a challenge for airlines because the longer a plane sits on the ground when it should be in the air, the less profitable it is: the rule of thumb is that for every extra minute on the ground $1m is lost. 

We set about using behavioural science to address this multi-dimensional problem.

Make the gate feel less like a cattle pen

The objective, as described by Figallo, was to make the boarding experience better and faster. But what does "better" mean in this context? What aspects of the experience should change and what has to stay the same? 

Before embarking on a change programme, one fundamental constraint had to be acknowledged: because its values committed it to equal service for all passengers, Southwest would not pre-allocate seats to make boarding faster. Passengers could not book a seat in advance, although they could get priority boarding, for example by buying an early-bird ticket, or joining the Rapid Rewards frequent flyer scheme.

A behavioural science approach

The approach to solving the challenge was to use behavioural science to understand what passengers did at the gate and then to design interventions that would change their behaviour.

This involved systematic analysis of the total passenger experience journey from booking to disembarkation, and a review of the psychology of travelling and queuing to see what coping strategies people use. In addition, we analysed trends in air travel and transport and identified technical enablers to see whether there were novel solutions that could be applied. 

The analysis allowed us to build a model of consumer behaviour and identify three focus areas that could work together to improve the experience of boarding. 

Southwest used both hi- and lo-tech innovations to reduce queues

The first concerned ways to relieve anxiety throughout the journey and at the gate. The second focus area was about improving the physical environment at the gate, to make boarding easier and more intuitive, and the third focus area was to change the tasks and activities at the boarding gate to make waiting less stressful and boring. 

Every solution had to reduce the time taken to board the plane and align with the Southwest brand values of friendliness, efficiency, and transparency. Additionally, concepts had to be realistic for the staff, and improve their job satisfaction. 

Some solutions were simple and low-tech; others made greater use of technology because Southwest were keen to ensure a balance of concepts that could be implemented in the short-term as well as those that required longer-term development. 

Evaluating the solutions

Ultimately 11 concepts were identified as being capable of changing behaviours at the gate and speeding up the boarding process. These included new forms of information message boards at the gate, using light and sound to indicate progress (thus changing both ambience as well as providing information), new ways to encourage passengers to take a break from boarding, and creating markers to guide passengers to suitable zones. 

The ideas were tested at St Louis Airport for 12 weeks. With these interventions, boarding time was reduced on average by four minutes. This is very significant when the normal turnaround time for a plane from landing to embarking is 25 minutes, and every minute costs both money and goodwill.

So, what did behavioural science add to the process? The role of behavioral science gave Southwest greater confidence that the concepts generated were grounded in an understanding of passenger psychology and behaviour. This helped ensure that the solutions were not only effective at reducing the boarding times but also acceptable to passengers and employees. 

Dr Helena Rubinstein is head of behavioural science at Innovia Technology, and the author of new book, Applying Behavioural Science to the Private Sector (Palgrave)

Main image: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Body image: Innovia


Helena Rubinstein recommends

The death of management

Read more

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime