Southwest Airlines rolled out a corporate rebranding and new paint jobs for its fleet on Sept. 8, part of a freshening up to coincide with its integration of AirTran Airways—the largest acquisition in Southwest’s history—and the launch of international flights. The famously informal carrier that started from a business plan scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin has been quick to describe the redo with the phrase “New look, same heart.”
Yet there’s a less-heralded, but far more important, change at the carrier credited with bringing affordable air travel to the masses: It’s no longer the industry’s low-cost leader. Just as Southwest has grown—becoming America’s No. 4 airline—so have its costs. Today, Southwest has per-mile operating costs that come close to its three larger rivals, American Airlines Group, Delta Air Lines, and United Continental Holdings.