Suddenly, Southwest Isn’t Such a Great Travel Option Anymore
Since at least 2008, one of the most common criticisms of California high speed rail has been the claim that HSR is simply unnecessary because of Southwest Airlines. Southwest offers frequent flights at dirt cheap fares, so why would anyone spend more money to take a slower train?
This argument has always been rooted in ignorance. In order to believe this, one has to ignore the fact that door to door HSR is actually competitive with flights between the Bay Area and Southern California (since the planned HSR stations are more centrally located than are the airports). One also has to pretend that present conditions will last forever, ignoring the fact that gas prices will be rising in the future, making cheap air travel a thing of the past.
Finally, one of the critics who has been making these flawed “Southwest means HSR isn’t necessary” arguments has woken up to the reality that, in fact, Southwest isn’t providing cheap flights any more. Here’s Joe Mathews writing at Zócalo:
I may have to take back everything bad I ever said about California’s high-speed rail project.
This thought ran through my head one morning last week at Gate A3 of Burbank airport, as I engaged in another of my now-frequent battles with Southwest Airlines. My morning flight to Oakland had been canceled with little warning or explanation. But Southwest wouldn’t let me on an earlier flight that had room and was still sitting at the gate. The Southwest agent said he couldn’t get me to Oakland before 3 p.m. — and I was scheduled to give a talk at 4. He could get me to San Jose, but wouldn’t offer me compensation for the extra time or car I’d have to rent.
When I protested, he told me to call Southwest customer relations in Dallas. The line there was busy.
I used to think that a $70 billion train project from L.A. to San Francisco didn’t make much sense because the great state of California had Southwest Airlines. For most of my adult life, Southwest has been more reliable in California than any utility. It provided the essential north-south connections in our long, tall state with the downscale charm of a great bus service. It was cheap, on time, and offered constant flights staffed by people who did everything they could to get you to your destination.
It’s not too great a leap to say that Southwest made it possible for me to do my job. I routinely used it to commute from Southern California to Sacramento or the Bay Area for a day of work, often for less than $100 round-trip. While covering Governor Schwarzenegger in the 2000s, Southwest was so good that I often beat the governor, who flew via private jets, to his destination.
But the glory days of Southwest may be coming to an end. Once known for its low fares and high customer satisfaction, the formerly idiosyncratic airline is becoming more like its dysfunctional competitors. Southwest’s on-time performance is now among the worst in the airline business, Flight cancellations are common, and prices have risen well above bus-service level. Walk-up fares approach $250 each way.
Mathews is a really smart guy, so I’ve long been disappointed in him for assuming that the conditions of the 2000s would simply last forever. But he deserves a ton of credit for looking at the facts and reaching the inescapable conclusion that HSR may actually have a meaningful, even vital role to play in connecting California in the years and decades to come.
He realizes that the problems aren’t unique to Southwest:
But in California, Southwest’s troubles have left an unmistakable void, and it’s not clear who can fill it. Other major national airlines offer far fewer in-state flights and, when you count baggage and change fees, are still more expensive than Southwest. It’d be nice if Burlingame-based Virgin America could step up and reduce our reliance on Texas-based Southwest, but it operates in only four California airports: Palm Springs, San Diego, LAX and SFO.
In fact, as I noted above, Virgin America has actually reduced the number of California airports it serves. Earlier this year it announced it was pulling out of SJC – while at the same time expressing interest in operating HSR.
The writing is on the wall. Airlines aren’t going to continue enabling cheap, convenient travel between Northern and Southern California for much longer. In fact, as Mathews explains, they have basically already stopped doing so. This is the problem that HSR will solve, just as it’s solved this problem on every other route it’s been built to serve across the globe. Whether it’s London-Paris, Tokyo-Osaka, Madrid-Barcelona, Beijing-Shanghai, New York to DC – just to name a few – HSR has proven the more popular option once it’s been offered.
And as a result, Mathews reaches the conclusion I reached back in 2006:
In this context, high-speed rail looks less like an extravagance and more like a necessity. Critics of high-speed rail, like yours truly, used to point out that the projected cost of tickets, usually in the $40 to $120 range, wasn’t any cheaper than flying. But with walk-up fares from Burbank to Oakland running $223 last week on Southwest, that’s no longer the case. The projected three-hour train travel time between L.A. and San Francisco also doesn’t seem so bad with all Southwest’s delays.
Welcome to the pro-HSR club, Joe. Glad to have you on board.