Where many American airlines are shrinking your legroom to squeeze out a few extra pennies, Southwest is hosting concerts in the skies. Over the past several years, the quirky carrier has surprised passengers with unannounced in-flight musical sets by middle-of-the-road rock bands, an unannounced in-flight fashion show, and even an unannounced in-flight wedding. Now comes the latest volley in Southwest’s campaign to inflict glee on your customer experience, whether you want it or not: book readings.
I know this because on Monday, my wife and I lurched onto an 8:40 a.m. Southwest flight from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, hoping to catch up on a few hours of sleep or get a little work done. Just before takeoff, a man in a suit at the front of the plane picked up the intercom, introduced himself as Eric Greitens, and announced that our flight would contain a little surprise. We both sighed.
Greitens is a nonprofit founder, best-selling author, former Navy SEAL, and possible Republican candidate for governor of Missouri. Perhaps an hour into the flight, Greitens, an aide, and two Southwest staffers began unpacking a microphone, a mic stand, and a small PA from overhead storage. Once again amplified, Greitens described his latest book—a series of letters about resilience and self-reliance that he wrote to a fellow veteran who suffered from PTSD—and read a chapter, which included guidance on how to “make small adjustments with great conviction” and “build purpose in the face of pain.” While this was the rare book reading in which a chunk of the audience was either sleeping or wearing headphones or both, much of Greitens’ captive crowd did seem to be engaged, though that may have been partially thanks to the Southwest employee who announced that submitting a question for Greitens to answer would qualify you for a special gift. (It turned out to be a $100 Southwest gift card. And even if you didn’t have any questions for Greitens, you still walked away with a nine-CD audio version of his book.) “I hope we made your flight down to D.C. a little more fun and interesting,” Greitens said.
I’m generally of the opinion that there are no good surprises on an airplane. But Southwest hopes that these “in-flight activations” will make their customers’ days a little brighter. Greitens is the first author to hold a “reading in the sky” on the airline (this was his second); the partnership came together because Southwest had already worked with his veterans nonprofit, The Mission Continues. In general, says Southwest community engagement coordinator Kim Boller, the airline wants to work with artists who fit into the “Southwest culture,” people who are “fun-loving, carefree, have a smile on their face.” Makes sense. The only thing offensive about an author like Eric Greitens (earnest, patriotic) or a band like one-time Southwest in-flight entertainment Imagine Dragons (anthemic, vanilla) is the sheer fact of their presence on a cramped and inescapable flight.
Programs like Southwest’s “Artists on the Fly” series don’t require an especially large investment, Boller says. The airline compensates bands, models, and now authors only with airfare; many of the events are filmed and uploaded to YouTube, the better to market both parties. Boller says there’s no pay-to-play going on, even in an era when some airlines sell their tray surfaces to advertisers.
For artists, the only irritating thing about the Southwest deal might be the lack of first-class—certainly a downgrade for chart-toppers like Imagine Dragons. But surely Southwest is worried about annoying passengers? “There’s always the opportunity for that,” Boller says, but she maintains it hasn’t happened yet. Besides, the airline tries to choose flights that aren’t too early or late. We’ll have to agree to disagree on how early 8:40 a.m. is.