Sometimes it takes a coincidence to help us connect the dots, and we had just such a coincidence in the airline industry last week, involving two airlines, Southwest and Virgin Atlantic, that have more in common than many people realize.

What they have in common, somewhat paradoxically, is that they have built strong brands by being different.

Southwest, of course, is the archetypal low-frills discounter. Unlike most U.S. airlines, it has steadfastly resisted numerous airline industry trends and fads.

Virgin, unlike most European airlines, specializes in long-haul international routes that link London with the world, with no hubs and no alliance relationships.

But Southwest has been breaking out of its own mold with its acquisition of AirTran, and it recently reached a provisional agreement with its flight attendants that would enable it to operate international services.

And last week Virgin disclosed plans to generate its own internal feed traffic in the U.K., beginning with a spoke route from Manchester to London next spring.

These new strategies are reflections of a changing world where even airlines with strong and unique brands find it necessary to adapt and become a little less different.

It takes courage and skill to succeed by being different, but it's an equal or greater challenge to shed those differences. It might be coincidence that we see this happening at the same time with airlines at opposite ends of the spectrum, but it's no coincidence that success and adaptability go hand in hand.
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