04:14 PM

Southwest's New Team Will Court Business Travelers

The airline has formed a unit dedicated to pushing more corporate travel to its growing business-travel site.

Southwest Airlines Co. sees more opportunity than ever in the business-travel market, and it's trying to capitalize on that. The airline said Monday it has formed a dedicated management and sales team whose mission is to push more corporate business to its growing online business-travel site,

Since its debut in May 2000, Southwest's corporate booking site has helped the airline grab a growing share of the business-travel market, with 2003 enrollment up 72% over the previous year. More recently, monthly enrollment is up 80% year-over-year for January and February, says Scott Anderson, manager of national accounts and corporate sales for Southwest. Helane Becker, an analyst with the Benchmark Co., says establishing a full-time corporate sales force is an unusual step for Southwest, which has been out in front of the industry in relying on the Internet as its primary sales channel. "They're going after more business travelers, and having a dedicated sales team allows them to go directly after the corporate market," Becker says. "There's an awful lot of ability for them to grow." Long-haul airlines such as American and Delta count on business travel for about 50% of their sales, while corporate travel represents just 35% of Southwest's business.

Becker says Southwest and other low-fare airlines such as JetBlue have been picking up much of the domestic corporate travel business that was lost in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. As the economy has rebounded and business travel has picked up, business travelers have become more price-conscious, leading them to Southwest and JetBlue--which itself is preparing to launch an online corporate booking tool, although no date has been disclosed.

Southwest says that while it has always commanded a significant share of short-hop business travelers who make their own arrangements, corporate travel managers haven't always been able to tie purchases from Southwest's online system into their own back-end accounting systems. The airline's online booking tool lets them integrate customized reports on individual fare purchases, monthly spending summaries, and rankings of the top routes employees are flying into those systems, with data available as far back as a year. The site also lets travel managers develop customized booking pages that include preferred hotel and car-rental discounts. The new dedicated sales team's job is to make more companies aware of the tool.

Southwest's Anderson says corporate travel departments are looking to cut more than just airfare expense--they're also looking to eliminate booking fees and the cost of obtaining reports from the global distribution systems they've traditionally relied upon. Southwest's aim is for the tool to operate as if it were an in-house air travel-management application. Says Anderson, "It's selling a tool that incorporates into their corporate travel policy."

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