Image: Southwest Airlines

APEX Insight: Do impromptu performances on board captivate passengers or hold them captive?

Southwest Airlines has extended its Live at 35 in-flight concert series, an initiative started in 2011, now collaborating with Warner Music Nashville. A good time by the looks of the passenger-filmed videos on the Internet, but certain Twitter users and media outlets paint the experience as distressing.

“I often wish I could be strapped to a bad chair listening to someone else’s favorite genre of music while hermetically sealed in a sky tube,” @STEPD0C snarked.

“Literally nobody asked for this,” @ComicOzzie58 replied to a tweet sent out by Minnesota radio station The Current. A headline on vice.com read: “Southwest Airlines Will Regularly Inflict Live Music on Trapped Passengers.”

But airline spokesperson Alyssa Eliasen says passengers aboard Live at 35 flights usually respond with delight rather than derision. “People immediately pull out their phones and start filming.” Twitter reactions by those actually in attendance are also generally positive. “Loved the in-flight concert by @temecularoad on my @SouthwestAir flight yesterday. Don’t get that on other airlines. #Liveat35,” @carpenjt wrote.

“We provide entertainment and an activity for our customers, and at the same time connect our artist partners with new audiences,” – Alyssa Eliasen, Southwest Airlines

Southwest’s music partnerships with the likes of Warner Music Group, the Grand Ole Opry and Live in the Vineyard mean that performers are high-caliber – think Imagine Dragons, Atlanta hip-hop artist Raury and rising stars – not your local cover band. “We provide entertainment and an activity for our customers, and at the same time connect our artist partners with new audiences,” Eliasen says. And while the press has described the initiative as an amenity, Southwest doesn’t see it as a loyalty tool – it’s just part of its DNA, Eliasen explains.

The American low-cost carrier isn’t the only airline to bring live entertainment to the cabin midair. Other examples include a performance by the Reduced Shakespeare Company on a 2014 easyJet flight from Gatwick to Verona, a 2016 TEDxSydney talk for Australian technology and science innovators on a Qantas hop to San Francisco and, most recently, a 10-hour-long immersive retelling of Icelandair’s history during a transatlantic flight from London to New York.

“We like to keep them limited to a small amount so they stay special and unique for our customers and for the artists we work with,” – Alyssa Eliasen, Southwest Airlines

Southwest, however, is the only airline to offer this type of entertainment with some regularity. There are about 20 Live at 35 events per year, with each lasting about 10 minutes – artists will play two songs at the front of the cabin and one at the back, time permitting. “We like to keep them limited to a small amount so they stay special and unique for our customers and for the artists we work with,” Eliasen says. And to keep the customer experience a happy one, Southwest won’t schedule a concert on a 6 a.m. flight, for instance, she notes. “We try to keep them to midday.” For those passengers who simply don’t want to participate, no pressure, Eliasen adds; they can simply keep their headphones on and tune out.

“Live in Flight” was originally published in the 8.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.