Monday, August 18, 2014

NOLA to DC: does USAirways need to worry about the 'Southwest effect'?

Flying from MSY to DCA: Southwest vs. USAirways
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

I am based in New Orleans (and proud to call the city home!) and New Orleans has many great qualities and attributes, however one thing New Orleans did not use to have were many direct flights.  Usually, if you wanted to take a direct flight to a certain destination there was only one option and usually that was via the airline's hub, which meant that particular airline had the monopoly over that flight timings and prices.  This is how flying from New Orleans (MSY) to Washington Reagan (DCA) used to be as USAirways was the only airline that flew direct, that is until Southwest arrived.  With Southwest's takeover of AirTran, it got landing rights into DCA which allowed it to operate direct flights and one of the cities to get direct flights from DCA on Southwest was New Orleans.  This would be great, another option to fly direct --- but is Southwest better?  Did the competition bring down fares?  Is the flight experience any different between the two carriers?  Let's find out.  

SWA Boeing 737
Background:  USAirways has been flying between MSY and DCA for a while, but initially the flight options were limited.  When USAirways adopted a somewhat 'hybrid LCC model', they transferred some of their services to USAirways Express and those services included the flights from MSY to DCA.  Initially, USAirways Express (operated by Republic Airlines dba USAirways Express) kept the same schedule and but then gradually increased the flight options.  Southwest, on the other hand, is a new competitor as it acquired the landing slots at DCA (which are restricted) through its acquisition of AirTran.  Southwest also gained a landing slots through the American-USAirways merger (they had to give up slots to get approval for the merger) and started flights from MSY to DCA on August 10th. It started with 2 non-stops (flights via connections have been available on Southwest since January 2014).  

USAirways Express Embraer
The Plane: For the route, USAirways Express uses an Embraer 175 while Southwest uses a Boeing 737-700.  The Embraer is a small plane and is layed out in a 2-2 fashion while the Boeing 737 is a bigger plane but is layed out in a 3-3 option.  The good thing about this is that you know exactly what kind of plane you are getting, what the seating layout is, and what amenities are available.  There are no surprises!
NOTE: The flight time from MSY to DCA ranges from 2hours to 2hrs 40minutes.  Southwest flew the route in 2 hours (from takeoff to landing) while USAirways flew the route in 2hrs30minutes.  I am not sure if it is because Southwest uses bigger planes so can get there faster or if they are going faster speeds.  On the return, both airlines had the same flight time of 2hour 30minutes.

Price: This is usually the first thing customers look at in terms of flights and usually competition brings down fares. Normally, USAirways charges between $230-$320 or higher for a roundtrip fare (depending on how in advance you purchase).  Despite the addition of the Southwest flights, the fares have remained the same (and I have not seen any sales for these fares).  Southwest's fares have been going up and down like a yo-yo.  When the flights were first available on their website, the non-stops were pricing at $240 for a roundtrip fare (connections were slightly higher).  Later, when Southwest started their promotions of the new flights the roundtrip flights dropped down to $186 (for the non-stop).  
NOTE: if you book the higher fare on Southwest and then the fare drops, if they can verify the lower fare they will provide you a credit for the difference.  

One of SWA's new flights to DCA - from MSY
Flight Options: As I stated earlier, initially the flight options on USAirways were limited but in the last 5 years they have increased gradually.  USAirways Express now offers 5 daily non-stop flights from MSY to DCA, with the earliest flight at 5:45am and the latest flight at 6:35pm (very convenient and work-friendly schedules).  More flight options are available via connections (through Charlotte or now Miami and Dallas).  Southwest currently offers only 2 non-stop flights - one at 7:40am and the other at 2:55pm (which is being pushed back to 3pm).  There are additional flight options via connections (through Houston, Atlanta, or Nashville; they used to have connections via St. Louis but no longer).

Services:  Southwest has pioneered the LCC (low-cost carrier) model so you know you are not going to get a lot with your ticket.  USAirways is a hybrid in that USAirways operates as a 'reduced' full-service airline while USAirways Express operates more like a LCC.  On both airlines, you basically pay for your seat and a drink and that is about it.  For USAirways, you can pre-select your seat (regular economy is free while additional room and exit row cost $25) while Southwest has an 'open seating' policy where you can choose your seat based on what's available when you board.  Southwest does provide 2 free bags (a nice bonus) while USAirways does charge for checked bags (starting at $25).  Southwest also provides a 'no change fee' policy if you need to change your flight (you just pay the difference in fare) while USAirways does charge a change fee (along with the difference in fare).  While on board, both provide soft drinks and water for free.  USAirways Express does provide a free small pretzel pack and does have a (limited) selection of food to buy on board.  Southwest provides free peanuts/pretzels as well as a 'veggie wheat thins' snack pack; it does not provide any food to buy on board

Entertainment:  USAirways Express does not provide any entertainment while on board.  They do offer paid wifi or a free airline magazine.  Southwest also provides paid wifi or a free airline magazine, and now they have started a promotion with Dish Network to offer live TV via a downloaded app to your smartphone or table (which you do prior to your flight).  The live TV, as well as selected TV shows, are only available on wifi-enabled planes (which most but not all planes are) and only if the wifi works (which sometimes it does not).  When it does work, it is a great past-time and is very fast (and is comparable to Jetblue's tv options).

using the app: 24 hours prior to your flight, you receive an email indicating whether your flight is wifi-enabled, and if it is you are prompted to dowload the app.  When you get on board, select 'Southwest wifi' and then open the app.  You can select the free tv or paid wifi.  After watching a short DISH Network commercial and entering your email, the browser launches and you can watch up to 19 channels and 75 tv episodes.  

Overall: In the end which is better?  That really depends on what you are looking for and what is important to you.  USAirways' flight schedules are more convenient and have more options so they are more flexible with your schedule.  However, USAirways charges for bags while Southwest does not and if you are checking in two bags, that's is an extra $60 on USAirways while on Southwest it would be no charge.  Both airlines are pricing the flights equally so it really depends on the extras and your preference as to which one you choose.  Whichever one you do choose...happy and safe travels!

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