I’m a big fan of Southwest airlines. I like the brand. I like flying with them. To me, the Southwest brand is all about “simple, safe, fun, and affordable travel”. Southwest always seems to be one step ahead of the competition. While other carriers get into price wars and succumb to the commoditization of their “product”, Southwest stands out. They have done this by:

• focusing on mid-size markets and operating only one type of airplane (Boeing 737’s).
• making it fun to work for the company and encouraging employees to share that fun with travelers.
• only selling direct to customers, which allows them to control the customer experience and protect the brand.
• producing a simple Website that’s easy to use.
• making the boarding process simple — “Stand here when we tell you to.”
• making the seating process simple — “See a seat? Sit in it.”
• sticking to the basics — no food, no frills. Just planes that work, seats that aren’t broken, staff that are friendly and in my experience, planes that almost always arrive ahead of schedule.
• creating a rewards program that’s easy to understand. Take 16 flights and earn 1 round trip.
• operating a safe airline — consistently named one of the safest airlines in the country.

But I’m worried that Southwest may be losing sight of what made them such a strong brand. Within the past 6 months, things have begun to change.

Southwest purchased Air Tran. There goes the efficiency of operating one type of airplane in midsize markets. And, it doesn’t give me good feelings about safety. In case you’ve forgotten, AirTran used to be ValueJet, the company whose maintenance practices were so bad, they were grounded by the FAA in 1996. After years of record numbers of emergency landings and an accident rate 14 times higher than other carriers, it took the crash of Flight 592 into the Florida everglades, and the death of 110 passengers to finally get the FAA to pull the plug on ValueJet.

Southwest changed their rewards program and their Website. You now need an advanced mathematical degree to figure out when, or if you will ever get a reward. Advertising for their new program may claim “No Blackout Dates” but what they fail to mention is their new “Blackout Locations”. Yes, you can fly anytime, but you just may not be able to go where you want to go. And their site, once familiar and easy to navigate, is now maddeningly counterintuitive. Finding or redeeming awards is an exercise in frustration.

And finally, any safety concerns I might have had as a result of the acquisition of AirTran were magnified when a Southwest 737 recently blew a hole in its roof in mid-flight, leading to hundreds of its aging planes being grounded for inspection.

So, with that as a backdrop, let me share the story of my most recent trip, my first with Southwest since all these changes have occurred.

Booking the flights was harder than ever. I was able to use a reward for one leg of the round trip, but not the other. I don’t know why. Two phone calls, hours on hold, and a very confusing explanation from the operator when I finally got to her was the first sign that something had changed.

The reward flight allowed me to take the scenic route from New Hampshire to Tampa — through Chicago. The return flight was worse. Stuck for five hours in Baltimore trying to catch a connecting flight home. Two planes grounded with mechanical errors and nobody able to tell me when, or if we would ever get off the ground. Constantly moving departure times and conflicting stories about what was happening only made me more angry as I looked at my luggage, sitting in the rain on an uncovered cart on the tarmac. Somehow, when I finally got on the plane late last night, the cheery flight attendants weren’t quite as funny as I remembered.

This became a story about branding as I listened to the woman next to me on the plane go on and on about her bad day, and how little she thought of Southwest. This being her first flight with the airline, I found myself defending Southwest, trying to convince her that this was unusual and they really aren’t this bad.

For me, the Southwest brand has been well established. Years of positive experiences had generated enough good will that I was able to come to their defense, even while weathering a bad flying experience myself. But after some reflection, I’m worried. A brand I trusted is changing and the seeds of doubt have been allowed to take root. It’s going to take more than a funny commercial to reassure me.