Photograph courtesy of Southwest Airlines
I realized Southwest Airlines had declared war on Delta one evening when I saw a TV commercial announcing the opening salvo: Fly three round trip flights out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport before May 17 and earn a companion pass. That’s a big deal. If you buy a ticket, a friend can fly with you virtually for free, any number of times, with no blackout dates during the duration of the pass. It’ll only cost you the government’s cut, usually around $5 to $20. (Normally to earn this honor you either must fly 100 times or earn 100,000 points via Southwest’s price-based “miles” system. Ouch.)
I quickly realized that by assigning my girlfriend as my companion, we’d both be getting 50 percent off airfare. We already fly a few times a year to visit our families and take vacation, so this would be an excellent boon. If I could squeeze in three extra trips cheaply enough, we would actually be saving money.
Luckily, I was privy to some timely inside information thanks to growing up in Dallas, the founding city of Southwest Airlines. Many Atlantans wouldn’t know this, but for the longest time Southwest had been handicapped by operating at the secondary airport in Dallas: Love Field. There, the Wright Amendment, part of the Air Transportation Act of 1979, restricted commercial flights to only Texan cities and bordering states. The amendment was lifted last fall, and Southwest launched a huge Love Field sale to celebrate.
With low prices from Atlanta to kick off Southwest’s new Hartsfield-Jackson hub and cheap fares out of Dallas marking the end of the Wright Amendment, it was a perfect storm culminating in a cost of roughly $45 for each of the six flights—a companion pass for the low cost of $270.60. All I had to do was confirm that my Rapid Rewards account had an Atlanta zip code and register for the promotion online.
Dawn of Day One. March 17, 4:00 a.m. Flight No.4340 ATL-DAL
In order to secure the lowest possible fares, all of my flights left Atlanta at 5:45 a.m. Too early for MARTA, so I enlisted my girlfriend to shuttle me. We drove down an empty Connector, the first of three early morning trips. Even though I was excited, I wouldn’t say I was enthusiastic. No one should leave the house at 4:00 a.m.
Even this early, Hartsfield-Jackson was busy with red-eyed travelers dragging themselves through security. Still, lines were short at the checkpoint, and I was able to catch the first Plane Train of the day out to C gates.
It was St. Patrick’s Day, and Southwest had filled their kiosks with shamrocks, leprechauns, and pots of gold. This magically delicious example of customer service reminded me that I’m not on Delta, American, or United. Flying on Southwest means you’re in for something different.
To start, Southwest doesn’t have assigned seats. Anyone who’s been stuck next to a crying child and someone consuming an odiferous tuna sandwich knows how valuable this can be. To board, you’re given a zone: A, B, or C, and a number: 1-60. You simply line up in order, and on you go. Pick a seat, any seat. The plane fills up front to back and no checked luggage fees means fewer people trying to stuff impossibly full bags into overhead bins.
I walked down the jetway onto an older Boeing 737. With nearly everyone settled, a flight attendant explained in her Texas drawl that this is “not one of [their] evolved planes” and joked that we’ll get free counseling service in Dallas to help us cope with the lack of Wi-Fi. Tongue-in-cheek, she advised us to “kill [angry] birds” and “crush candy.” As the final passenger raced onto the plane, she then informed us that the lights would be dimmed. “If you get frightened, hold the hand of the person next to you. If you don’t know them, get acquainted.” I faded off to sleep as the late arrival took a seat in my row.
Somewhere over Mississippi, I woke and had a brief chat with my tardy seatmate. The 13C to my 13A, Kris, told me his story about barely making the flight. He had checked in late and raced to the front of the security checkpoint only to discover he’d left his ID at the ticket counter. In a moment that would leave most people going down with the ship, a Southwest ticketing agent ran up to security, searching for Kris, clutching his ID.
Soon after, a flight attendant came around to take drink orders. I remembered that it was St. Patrick’s Day—one of three holidays where Southwest gives away free drinks. Neither of my flights advertised the policy, but it was there on the menu. I sipped a Bloody Mary as the sun rose over the endless sprawl of Dallas/Fort Worth.
Dusk on Day One. March 17, 4:00 p.m. Flight No. 1370 DAL-ATL
As you could imagine, there’s not much to do in an airport half the size of one Hartsfield-Jackson concourse. There are only 20 gates, and only three of them aren’t used by Southwest. My daily sustenance would come from Texas mainstay and personal favorite Whataburger instead of the Georgian options of Chick-Fil-A and Moe’s Southwest Grill.
After lunch, I found myself searching for any of Southwest’s specially painted planes. I was able to check off the Texan flag adorned Lone Star One and the Beats partnership plane, proving that Southwest did not forget about Dre. Considering Southwest’s expansion into Atlanta, could we one day see a Georgia One? Or possibly a Peach One?
After exploring what Love Field had to offer, I boarded my return flight exhausted. This was one of the “evolved planes” featuring Wi-Fi with free live TV and on-demand movies streaming to phones and tablets. As we taxied, one of the flight attendants gave a very nervous safety briefing. As she finished, her co-worker solicited us all for applause—that uneasy speech was the flight attendant’s first. We clapped and listened to more Southwest jokes and sass before takeoff.
Dawn of Day Two. March 18, 4:00 a.m. Flight No. 4340 ATL-DAL
I had gone to bed early, but nothing could prepare me for the second day’s 3:45 a.m. wake up. At 26, I figured I had the energy. After all, it hadn’t been that long since I was pulling all-nighters in college. I now know that I am mortal, getting older, and that waking up during the witching hour is a fool’s errand.
My cabin crew, though competent, was not as cheery as the day before. Gone was our Texan matron and her jokes about Wi-Fi. This crew was based out of Atlanta, possibly absorbed from AirTran. If that’s the case, then they simply just haven’t learned the Southwest way yet. I did come to a realization during that flight though. Southwest doesn’t use aisle-blocking drink carts. A flight attendant comes around to take your order and then delivers your drink a little later. This is a game-changer. If you need to use the lavatory, there’s nothing blocking you!
Dusk on Day Two. March 18, 4:00 p.m. Flight No. 1370 DAL-ATL
Most of my day was spent catching up on sleep. I walked the terminal a bit and ate Whataburger’s Honey BBQ Chicken Strip Sandwich to stave off boredom. Whenever you see an animal pacing at the zoo, think of me trapped in Love Field, waiting to get back to Atlanta with a companion pass in hand. Coming home, I sat toward the back of the plane in the same row as a Southwest pilot hitching a ride. This was another no-nonsense flight crew, which I didn’t mind, since all I wanted was to drift back into sleep.
Not long after takeoff, I awoke to heavy turbulence. I’ve been flying since I was a toddler, so bumpy skies don’t usually bother me. But when the entire plane cried a scratchy Styrofoam-like sound, the hull listed left and right like a sailboat, and the wings’ bird-like flapping seemed to be the only thing keeping us upright, I took notice. The man next to me was eating a salad. I heard a sudden thud and we dropped a noticeable altitude, miraculously being spared from wearing new lettuce hats. He nervously closed the lid, and the Southwest pilot in our aisle cheerfully joked, “That seems like a good idea.” Ten white-knuckled minutes later, all was clear.
Dawn of Day Three. March 24, 4:00 a.m. Flight No. 4340 ATL-DAL
My previous flight had been Thursday. In order to keep costs under $300, I had to wait until the next Tuesday to finish up. That reprieve turned out to be a blessing. The weekend had rejuvenated me, and I figured I could finish the journey without much pain. I arrived at the airport a little earlier to explore.
What I didn’t know was that in the dead of night, the Plane Train moves slower than the Atlanta Streetcar at Centennial Olympic Park: In other words, not at all. I was forced to take the long walk, 15 minutes, from the domestic terminal to C gates. Serenaded by a soft jazz rendition of “My Favorite Things” and constantly spooked by my own sleep-deprived shadow, I pressed on through the un-air-conditioned underground of Hartsfield-Jackson.
Concourse C is split between Southwest on one side and Delta on the other. To passengers, it may very well be East and West Germany with a Cinnabon. The Delta side is dingy. Imagine all the joy of the DMV plus a bus station. Southwest’s side is renovated, with each gate housing a few faux-leather chairs connected to power outlets. Everything feels newer and cleaner. On the walls, they’ve plastered ads espousing the airline’s amenities (free checked bags, no blackout dates, no change fees.) The Delta side’s signage informed me that they fly to Seattle and my carry-on bag had better fit into the sizing cube. Even the slogans were no match. Delta promised assured travelers that it was “building a better airline.” Southwest fired back: “Without a heart, it’s just a machine,” “Low fares are what we do,” and “The snacks are on me.”
Dusk, Day Three. March 24, 4 p.m. Flight No. 1370 DAL-ATL
My earlier feelings of rejuvenation had been a bit premature. I spent most of the day sleeping in airport chairs. Still, with time to kill, I found myself observing Love Field’s lone Delta gate. It was 5 p.m., and Flight 2543 to Atlanta was severely delayed. It was supposed to have left Dallas at 12:46 p.m. After nearly five hours of waiting, passengers had been given free snacks and water for their trouble. This past Christmas, my girlfriend and I encountered a similar situation on a Southwest flight. After a five-hour delay in Atlanta, we received neither free snacks nor water. Instead, we were given a $200 voucher . . . each.
Southwest’s pricing war honestly won’t change much for Atlanta. But it will bring additional choices for domestic travelers. Casual flyers motivated by price and comfort might skew towards Southwest, drawn in by the lack of fees, ease of travel, and lower fares.
When I landed that third time in Atlanta, I had earned my companion pass. I thought about the upcoming air travel I knew my girlfriend and I have planned. My suffering will save us nearly $500. That’s enough for two more flights with the pass. It wasn’t easily earned, and I can’t say I recommend the trial to the faint of heart or intolerant of caffeine. However, if you can take the time off of work, get up at 4 a.m., and fly back and forth three times without going insane, Southwest has a deal that’ll make you think twice about who you’re going to fly with. If not, then I’m sure the low fares will still draw you in. Happy trails, Atlanta.
Read more: Air fair?
When Southwest gobbled up AirTran in 2010 and started its own service at Hartsfeld-Jackson in 2012, hoopla ensued. Experts predicted the “Southwest effect” would push all airfares down and make hometown heavyweight Delta sweat. With the merger complete, our writer takes stock.