It’s been a long, uncertain year for air travel across the U.S., and much of the world, since lockdowns and social distancing measures kicked in during March 2020.

With renewed efforts to quell the virus spread, and leisure travel on the upward swing — as well as pent-up demand for face-to-face interaction after so many Zoom calls and virtual meetings — airlines are again looking ahead to a strong return of business travel.

As it nears its 50th anniversary in June this year, Southwest Airlines has been busy preparing for the change in pace with a suite of fresh business initiatives and incentives, including new routes slated for Houston (IAH), Chicago (ORD), Miami (MIA), Jackson (JAN), and Colorado Springs (COS). It’s a clear signal to existing and future travelers that their skies are — or soon will be — once again open for business.

ANTICIPATING A RETURN TO BUSINESS

“Every month, more companies are removing their travel restrictions to align with their return to office policies,” said Kevin Sullivan, senior director of corporate sales, Southwest Business. “It’s been an extremely challenging year […] but we are beginning to see positive business trends and are cautiously optimistic about the recovery in the second half of 2021.”

Though operations were largely halted industry-wide over the past year, Southwest continued to invest strongly in its infrastructure and product offerings. It recently implemented two GDS partners — Travelport and Amadeus — signed a new industry standard agreement with Sabre, which will be online later this year, launched Rapid Reward Business, and added 17 new destinations to their network.

“We’ve converted millions of unused funds, and we’re in the process of hiring more Southwest Business Team Members,” added Sullivan. “(We’re) well positioned to compete for domestic share.”

EXPANDING MARKETS AND ENDURING CONFIDENCE

Luring business travelers back to the skies post-pandemic largely boils down to consumer confidence, with safety at the top of the list.

“We’ve prioritized the safety of employees and customers since our first flight in 1971,” said Sullivan. “During the pandemic, we evolved the travel experience through our Southwest Promise, which anchored on masks, air filtration, and deep cleaning. Last year the sales organization was busy facilitating airport tours across the U.S. and hosting virtual town halls to educate our partners on our commitment and operational enhancements. We’ve also been laser focused on proactive communication as policies evolve, both to the travel managers, TMC community, and directly to our Rapid Rewards members.”

To win new travelers, protect jobs, and keep its airplanes flying, the approach Southwest has taken over the past year has been uniquely assertive, dovetailing in the latest route expansions to Houston (IAH), Chicago (ORD), Miami (MIA), Jackson (JAN), and Colorado Springs (COS).

“I’ve spent the majority of my 20-year Southwest career meeting with travel managers from large corporations across the U.S.,” added Sullivan. “I couldn’t end a conversation without the request for IAH, ORD, and/or MIA. Adding service to the northsides of Houston and Chicago opens the opportunity to win more business travelers with companies already in contract, as well as bring in new partners.”

The new destinations enhance the value of the airline’s Rapid Rewards loyalty program, with business travelers now able to spend their points on new beach or ski destinations. The airline has also launched an introductory program to drive additional awareness and future business travel loyalty in these markets.

‘TRANSFARENCY,’ RELIABILITY, AND FLEXIBILITY

Given the unpredictability of the past year, maintaining transparent, fair, and flexible policies remains key to invigorating business travel confidence. Southwest continues to uphold its long standing position on ‘Transfarency’, including low fares, no change fees, and zero cancellation or bag fees.

“Our fare products are incorporated with flexible attributes,” said Sullivan. “During the pandemic, we created a funds management solution that allowed our corporate partners to convert their unused funds to a Universal Air Travel Plan (UATP) solution or a voucher for future travel. Understanding the importance of flexibility with managed travel programs, we will be adding new capabilities to our contracts later this year.”

Meanwhile, Southwest Business continues to boost its suite of partnership offerings. Sullivan explained, “We have designed a menu of contractual programs for companies of all sizes. For example, our Rapid Rewards Business program is ideal for small to midsize companies allowing the company and the traveler to earn Rapid Rewards points. As the company’s program grows, we take a customized approach to co-create an agreement designed to help them achieve their travel goals.”

Setting sights on recovery, the airline’s aggressive contract optimization roadmap will also provide customers a detailed menu of options that align with their priorities. “Flexibility, traveler experience, and sustainability are all at the top of the list.” Looking ahead, that list will likely become even stronger as we get closer to business travel’s recovery.

This article was created collaboratively by Southwest Airlines and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.