How Southwest Airlines used behavioural science to create a better boarding experience

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Behavioural science can be used to create better customer experiences, and Southwest Airlines' use of it has been groundbreaking. 

Have you ever watched people waiting at the boarding gate to get on a plane? After much delay passengers arrive at their point of departure having gone through check-in, waited at security and navigated their way through the airport. They are really keen to get going but then comes another problem – the dreaded waiting in line to board the aircraft.

Some people will have already started to wait in line whilst others are working out tactics. Some don’t understand the boarding process and are confused, others are bored and frustrated. People try to distract themselves by reading or looking at their phones but are on high alert so as not to miss an announcement. They watch the screens obsessively to check for any hint of delay or change. They eye up other passengers surreptitiously for signals that the line is starting to form and are unsure whether or not to approach staff at the gate who are busy. Frequent flyers get irritated by people who rarely fly because they don’t know where to go or don’t have their documentation with them, holding up the line. It is a place of high anxiety.

Southwest Airlines were only too aware that this was a major pain point for passengers. It is also a challenge for the airline 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 $1 million dollars is lost. How can you make it quicker and easier to board the plane at the same time as creating a better experience for passengers? Behavioural science was the answer.

Why can behavioural science create better customer experiences?

Behavioural science is the systematic study of humans, individually and with each other. It is not really new but has emerged from a variety of different disciplines including psychology, anthropology, and economics. What is new is that theories of behaviour are being applied to business problems including marketing and communications, customer experience development, new product and service innovation and organisational change.

Companies are using it alongside more traditional approaches to these problems because it gives them greater confidence that what they are doing will work. This is because it follows an experimental approach that is well-known in the science community: developing hypotheses and testing them, and finding evidence for what works, and just as importantly, what doesn’t.

What Southwest Airlines wanted to achieve

Southwest’s aim was to improve the boarding experience for their passengers in line with their values of giving everyone the same level of good service and being “high touch’’. They never use high technology just for the sake of it. At the same time, they wanted to make boarding quicker and easier for the staff at the gate to manage.

Making the gate feel less like a cattle pen

To address this challenge, Southwest airlines teamed up with the behavioural scientists, engineers and designers at innovation consultancy, Innovia Technology. 

The Innovia behavioural scientists first task was to really understand what passengers were going through on their journey through the airport. This in itself is not a new approach. Most CX professionals will be familiar with mapping the consumer journey. What differed was that the scientists observed people going through the airport and looked at what was happening through the lens of behavioural psychology: using their knowledge of what people, think, feel and do and their understanding of queuing theory, they were able to develop a behavioural model that identified the critical factors influencing the experience at the gate.

Three key factors were identified that together could be manipulated to improve the experience: relieve anxiety and uncertainty, alter the physical environment and ambience, and simplify the tasks and activities at the gate. This framework was used to ideate concepts to improve the experience at the gate.

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Southwest behavioural science

Designing solutions

This detailed analysis and model of behaviours at the gate was vital to help the team to generate many solutions, all with the intention of speeding up boarding and making the experience more pleasant. Every idea had to address one of more of the three factors and every idea had to be aligned with the Southwest brand values of friendliness, efficiency, and transparency as well as being realistic for the staff, and improve their job satisfaction. 

Some concepts were technically complex but often we could find a solution to the same problem that could be executed immediately with little or no technology. Getting information to people about waiting in line just when they need it, separating out zones at the gate for different functions and providing distractions to make the experience more enjoyable could all be done simply and in a low-tech way.

Southwest behavioural science


How do we know it works?

In keeping with the scientific approach, Southwest conducted an experiment to see if these ideas worked.

The ideas were tested at St Louis Airport for 12 weeks. With these interventions, the boarding time was reduced by up to four minutes. This is very significant when the normal turnaround time for a plane from landing to embarking is 25 minutes. Furthermore, the changes reflected well on the airline: passengers felt that Southwest Airlines is progressive, modern, and innovative, and it really cares about its customers”.

Southwest behavioural science


Behavioural science - is it worth it?

Southwest Airlines has a reputation for being a pioneer. Right from the start its approach was ground breaking – it was the inventor of the low-cost airline and in an industry that is highly cyclical and not known for sustaining profitability, it has been a beacon of success. Its use of behavioural science to improve the customer experience is no less ground breaking.

The role of behavioural science was to ensure 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. The proof is in the results.

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)

About Helena Rubinstein

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