In April, Southwest Airlines responded to being called out in an ad campaign from main DIA competitor United Airlines with a statement that, instead of firing back, touted the “Mile High Heart” of its employees and policies.
This week, Southwest launched a Denver-focused campaign of its own built around that Mile High Heart theme. It’s a slogan that sticks close to home for a company that already uses hearts in its branding and employs the stock ticker symbol LUV.
The advertising push debuted with one billboard Wednesday and will spread to dozens more around Denver as well as show up in the airport and in digital communication with customers, Southwest officials said.
It’s more evidence that Denver International Airport and the people who fly through it are in high demand for carriers trying to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic that decimated commercial air travel last year.
“(Denver) has been our fastest-growing station and we continued to grow there,” Southwest vice president of marketing Bill Tierney said. “We wanted something that would really strike a tone with what we believe in and how we show up in the community. It speaks what we offer when compared to the competition.”
To Southwest, the Mile High Heart theme means touting to the carrier’s long-time no-hidden-fees value proposition, with no change fees, cancellation fees or charges for use of overhead bins for all passengers.
United permanently waived its change fees for most tickets on domestic and international flights originating in the U.S. early on in the pandemic, but still attaches changes fees to Basic Economy tickets that were issued after April 30 of this year. Basic Economy tickets are the airline’s lowest cost fares.
Despite the distinctions Southwest might draw between itself and United on social media, Tierny said the Mile High Heart campaign won’t mention United.
“We don’t focus too much on our competition,” he said. “It’s really putting the emphasis on the fact that we are Denver’s primary carrier.”
In 2020, Southwest flew 119,115 flights out of DIA, the most of any airline, airport officials said. United flew 85,038, almost 29% fewer. But United’s regional partners, including Go Jet, Express Jet, Sky West and Republic, flew another 118,011 flights last year.
United’s DIA-focused marketing effort tells flyers to “have Mile High Standards.” It pokes at Southwest for, among other things, not offering direct flights from Denver to destinations in Hawaii and Mexico that United can reach in one shot.
The campaigns both aim to highlight the airlines’ connections to the community. United’s included ads touting the carrier’s flight training center in Denver, which received a $150 million upgrade three years ago.
Southwest, which is building a $100 million maintenance hangar at DIA, has ties that go beyond the airport too, Tierney said, including through working with community organizations and by offering promotional support for the state’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
DIA is growing and all three of its major carriers, Southwest, United and Denver-based Frontier Airlines, have been expanding their offerings, adding a flurry of new flights and services between them.
Earlier this week, United announced the order of 270 new planes for its fleet, the largest such acquisition in the company’s history. The addition of the new Boeing and Airbus jets could mean an additional 3,000 United jobs in Colorado over the course of the next few years, the airline said.
Right before the pandemic severely undercut demand, United signed a lease for 24 new gates at DIA and Southwest took on an additional 16, giving them 90 and 40 respectively when the airport’s concourse expansion work is complete.
The pandemic only increased Denver’s importance to the two operators as it maintained strong leisure travel traffic while other markets suffered more.
A “network connectivity issue” has caused a rash of flight cancellations and delays for Southwest at DIA in June, but the airline says it has nothing to do with staffing issues that have plagued American Airlines and led to cancelations around the country.
Now the competition to claim the largest share of passengers passing under the big white tent is underway, Southwest’s Mile High Heart vs. United’s Mile High Values.
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