No matter how the wheel spins, the Customer is sure to win a smile.

1981 – Present

To the Gates! Making Waiting Fun & the Advent of Hospitality

As far as Southwest Gate Agents are concerned, boredom has always been Public Enemy No. 1. Knotty questions can be addressed. Heated complaints can be assuaged. Special requests, more often than not, can be handled. But boredom? That’s simply not allowed anywhere near the departure gate.

As far as Southwest Gate Agents are concerned, boredom has always been Public Enemy No. 1. Knotty questions can be addressed. Heated complaints can be assuaged. Special requests, more often than not, can be handled. But boredom? That’s simply not allowed anywhere near the departure gate.

There’s never a dull moment, day in and day out, thanks to legions of Southwest Employees who ascribe wholeheartedly to the Company’s commitment to Hospitality. Over the years, they’ve proven uncannily adept at crafting fun ways to interact and engage with Customers—efforts that welcome Customers with a colorful array of gate games and inspired giveaways. Collectively these activities continue to wow newcomers and keep loyal regulars coming back for more.

This Fun-LUVing Attitude has been a Southwest staple since its earliest days, when then-Corporate Secretary Colleen Barrett made it clear that Employees were expected to take their jobs seriously but not themselves. That sentiment is on display, brighter than ever, today at airport gates across the Southwest system.  

If there’s a family-friendly game that can be enjoyed—and it’s safe enough not to send airport security running—chances are it has probably been tried. Paper-airplane throwing competitions.  Scavenger hunts. Sack races. Mini-basketball matches. Dance-offs. Worst Driver’s License Photo contests. All have been done and tweeted about by countless appreciative Customers.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was not unusual to spot Gate Agents and Supervisors towing around wagons and dollies, packed with Southwest goodies, through crowded airport concourses.

There were few rules when it came to constructing these so-called LUV Carts. Local Teams made do with whatever was at hand. Just about anything with wheels would do, as long as there was enough room to load it up with treats and trinkets. Then came the fun part: the act of wheeling the LUV Cart over to a gate and handing out Southwest T-shirts, cups, sodas, waters, and snacks to surprised Customers. It proved to be a particularly beloved way for Southwest to make its Hospitality felt. As Senior Vice President Operations & Hospitality Steve Goldberg says, “When you take the time to welcome, engage, serve, appreciate, and repeat, you make a lasting impression.”

The presence and presents of a Heart Cart surprise and delight Southwest Customers.

It made no difference what unexpected difficulty may have transpired within the concourse—a weather delay or a busted air conditioner—the appearance of a Southwest LUV Cart boosted everyone’s spirits.

Unfortunately, LUV Cart sightings became increasingly rare beginning in the early 2000s, as they seemed to clash with the somber moods in most airports following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

A turning point arrived in 2014, when then-President, Chairman, and CEO Gary Kelly asked Southwest to think long and hard about a single word: Hospitality. “How,” Gary asked his Team, “should we define the term ‘Hospitality’ moving forward?”

Although a Companywide etymology exercise was far from an industry norm, it was quintessentially Southwest.

“We had wanted to equate Hospitality to Customer Service for a while,” says Steve. “It took us time to understand that Hospitality was different. Hospitality was an action. It was a feeling.”

That was a key breakthrough as it led to a crystal-clear articulation of the term in 2015. Hospitality, in Southwest speak, was the act of creating an environment where people feel welcome, cared for, and appreciated.

It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as 2016 brought with it a new challenge to defend the Company’s stronghold in California. A rival airline was threatening to dethrone Southwest as the dominant air carrier in the Golden State.

Inspired in part by their recent discussions about Hospitality, Southwest Employees across the state launched a grassroots effort called California Strong, dedicated to out-serving, out-smarting, and out-hustling competitors.

Although gate games would play a role, some Employees’ thoughts drifted back to the endearing LUV Carts, which once had packed the emotional punch of an ice cream truck on a hot summer day. They were a symbol of the Company’s commitment to Hospitality, which also facilitated memorable interactions between Southwest Employees and Customers. Thus, Customer Services and Marketing Teams immediately got to work, sketching designs for a sleek new model, which would feature built-in lights and Bluetooth speakers.

These new “Heart Carts” made their official debut in 2017. Employees were encouraged to lean on their own instincts to stock them with goodies that felt appropriate for the moment—toys for kids, doughnuts for early-morning travelers, and prepackaged chocolates during the holiday season, to name a few.

Momentum soon began to build. Industrious Southwest Employees began constructing miniature wooden wheels, which kids could spin to earn different prizes. The Heart Carts, along with the continued appeal of Gate Games, turned waiting for a Southwest flight into a mini carnival.

The cheerful California Strong initiative more than achieved its goals. By early 2018, the rival airline was paring back on its California routes.

In contrast, Southwest Employees created fun diversions to keep loyal Customers coming back and to win over first-time travelers, all while maintaining its position as the No. 1 carrier among marketing carriers in annual aviation consumer satisfaction rankings from the Department of Transportation (DOT), with the lowest ratio of complaints to the DOT per 100,000 enplaned Passengers.

In fact, Southwest enjoyed such significant growth in the Golden State during this period that it decided to use the California Strong initiative as a template for a similar nationwide program called the “Win Hearts” campaign.

Heart Carts now roll through airports across the country. They dispense fun and good cheer, as the LUV Carts did decades ago, reinforcing the novel belief that Customers shouldn’t kill time at an airport but rather should be able to enjoy every minute of their travel experience.

Speaking during the height of the California Strong push, the San Francisco Station Manager  summed up Southwest’s approach very simply: “We’ve been doing this for years,” he said. “We just put a name to it. We take care of our Customers because our Customers take care of us.”