For a long time, low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways have had a reputation for catering to leisure travelers ...
For a long time, low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways have had a reputation for catering to leisure travelers — in fact, half of Southwest’s passengers and 75 percent of JetBlue’s customers fit in that category.
But both airlines have been moving aggressively to capture a bigger share of the lucrative business-travel market.
For instance, Southwest and JetBlue now offer fully refundable fares, intended to appeal to business travelers with changing schedules. The two are also at the forefront of the stampede to introduce in-flight Internet access this year.
And Southwest is starting to make its fares available through the computer systems that corporate travel managers use to book tickets. The airline is even starting to negotiate discounted contracts for corporate business, something that was anathema before.
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“While we have been adamant historically that we would not even consider that, I think there will be some situations in the future where that will make sense,” said Gary C. Kelly, Southwest’s chief executive.
For its part, JetBlue said it was considering creating enhanced front-cabin seating to attract business travelers willing to pay for perks like more legroom.
Several of these efforts are receiving a positive reception from industry analysts, business travelers and the managers who make decisions about which carriers employees can or must fly.
“They’re moving in the right direction,” said Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group aviation consulting firm, referring to Southwest’s strategy to court more corporate fliers.
“To get the business traveler, you need a number of things,” he said. “Reliability — they’ve got that. Frequency — in most markets, they’ve got that.
“But you’ve also got to have a low-anxiety product,” he added, mentioning that Southwest’s seating policy may need some refining.
Last fall, Southwest, known for its first-come-first-served boarding process, changed that to ensure that those paying the highest ticket prices — $10 to $30 extra for its “business select” fares — are placed at the front of the line.
All boarding passes are now numbered so passengers no longer have to line up early, which was a major turnoff to many business travelers already stressed and pressed for time.
So far, Southwest is selling an average of two to three business-select tickets per flight, Kelly said, and it aims to earn an additional $100 million a year in incremental revenue from these fares.
Although Boyd praised that change, he said Southwest might have to offer assigned seating or other enhancements to woo the business crowd. He noted, for instance, that JetBlue’s wider seats and live television were competitive advantages, compared with major carriers’ economy cabins.
Southwest and JetBlue have also been able to outshine their older competitors in customer service.
“JetBlue does not have passengers; they’ve got groupies,” Boyd said.
“They’ve gotten where they’ve gotten strictly because of good service.”
Southwest also had the best on-time record of the 10 largest domestic carriers last year, according to data compiled by the Department of Transportation.
That is a big reason Joshua White, an accountant in Melville, N.Y., gives Southwest almost all of his business, flying out of MacArthur Airport on Long Island to visit clients about two to three times a month.
White also appreciates the new numbered boarding procedure, saying it “alleviates the panic” previously associated with lining up for seats. He said he had paid the extra fee for the business-select ticket a few times, mostly to get priority boarding on longer flights.
“It’s no guarantee of a completely comfortable flight,” he said. “But your odds will bump up a bit if you pay the extra money.”
Corporate travel managers also report an increased receptiveness to low-cost carriers among their clients.
“There’s definitely a willingness to fly low-cost carriers as they continue to add services,” said Mary Ellen George, general manager for Advito, a travel-management consultant based in Dallas.
To capture a bigger share of those corporate-travel dollars, however, a more important factor may be offering the discounted contracts that businesses have long negotiated with the larger airlines.
“Southwest is starting to move into that territory, albeit very slowly,” said Dale Eastlund, director for the air consulting group at Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates.